Teaching Students with Mental Health Disabilities

There are many teaching strategies you can use to ensure effective and productive learning environments and experiences for all students, including those with disabilities.

Accessible Education[i] is the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people who have a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners[ii].

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, you have a responsibility to learn about accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of accessible programs and courses.

The following are some practical tips for teaching students with mental illness.

What does it mean if someone has a mental illness?

One in five Canadians, or 20% of the population, experiences a mental illness in their lifetime[iii]. In recent years, through university counselling centres and health services, universities have identified an increase in the number and complexity of mental illnesses present on campus.

Mental illness is often not obvious to others; typically you do not know if someone has a mental illness unless the individual chooses to disclose this to you. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, students are protected from having to disclose the nature of their disability to academic personnel.

Students with mental illness may find it difficult to disclose their disability to those in the academic environment. Some of the reasons for their reluctance include a fear of being stereotyped, the stigma of being treated differently, and the misperception of not being competent. Because of the episodic nature of mental illness, students with mental illness may go through periods of acute illness as well as periods of stability and success.

If you are aware of a person’s mental illness, it should not affect the way you interact with them. However, if someone is experiencing difficulty in controlling his/her symptoms or behaviour, or is in a crisis, you may need to help out. In these situations, it is best to stay calm and professional and let the person tell you how you can be most helpful.

The following instructional strategies will help create an environment that is inclusive to students who live with mental illness.

Suggested tips on teaching a person with a mental illness

In the classroom or laboratory

Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or capabilities; many persons with disabilities talk about being frustrated with people assuming what they can or cannot do. Remember that although persons with disabilities might have specific needs, every individual is different.

Prior to beginning the course

Provide an organized, well-written, and complete syllabus that includes required readings, assignments, due dates, and defined expectations.

When the course begins
  • Encourage students to tell you about any accessibility concerns. You can do this both verbally early in the semester and by including an accessibility statement on your syllabus. Indicate that such conversations are confidential and are strictly for the purpose of facilitating any learning needs or accommodations that may be in place.
  • Identify and clearly express the essential course content, and recognize that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways. Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to enable all students to demonstrate their specific talents (for example, oral presentations, poster presentations, written assignments).
  • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
  • Consider providing your classes with information about the accessible features of their immediate environment (for example, automatic doors and accessible washrooms).
  • Outline acceptable classroom behaviour at the start of the semester for all students.
  • Provide the course outline, the list of reading requirements, copies of overhead slides, and all other material in an accessible, digital format to all students whenever possible.
While in session
  • Put the lecture in context. Give students the “big picture” of where it fits into the overall course and how it relates to earlier materials.
  • Summarize important points at the end of class, perhaps by using a PowerPoint slide, board, or overhead projector.
  • Provide both verbal and written instructions with reminders of impending due dates for assignments and exams.
  • Promote interaction and collaboration among students. Help them form study groups.
  • Be patient – sometimes communicating with someone with a disability can take a bit longer, requiring you or the person to repeat comments several times.
  • Permit students to leave class for short periods and to access the washroom as needed.
  • Allow scheduled breaks during lectures, tests, and exams.
  • Provide personal feedback on academic performance.
  • Point out the important sections in course plans, textbooks, and readings in order to guide test and exam preparation; when possible, provide samples of tests and exams.
Tests, exams, and evaluation
  • When possible, allow the use of a calculator, dictionary, computer, and word processor with spell-check, as needed.
  • When possible, allow the use of memory aids for formulas or definitions.

Suggestions for interacting one-on-one with a student with mental illness

  • Treat a person with a mental illness with the same respect and consideration that you do anyone else.
    1. Discuss any inappropriate classroom behaviour with the student privately. Directly outline the limits of acceptable conduct. In your discussion with the student, do not attempt to diagnose or treat the psychological disorder. Concentrate only on the student’s behaviour in the course.
    1. Be confident and reassuring. Listen carefully and work with the person to meet his/her needs.
    2. If a student approaches you for therapeutic help, refer the student to the appropriate resources on your campus for assistance; this may be through Health or Counselling Services, or another office. You can also seek advice and ideas from colleagues and supervisors.
    3. If a student appears to be in a crisis, ask him/her to tell you how you can be most helpful. You can refer the student to Heath or Counselling Services, offer to call on their behalf, or walk him or her over in person.
    4. If a student resists your efforts to assist or if you are uncomfortable with the situation, seek out the appropriate resources on your campus for assistance; this may be through Health or Counselling Services, or another office. You can also seek advice and ideas from colleagues and supervisors.
    5. Learn about the resources available on campus or in the community to assist persons with mental illness.
    6. If you are concerned about a student and unsure whether or not to intervene, seek appropriate supports on your campus.

NOTE: If dealing with a crisis situation, please seek emergency help immediately.

Accommodating a student with a mental health disability

As an educator, you have a responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Requests for accommodation are made on an individual basis by students through the Office for Students with Disabilities and require medical and/or formal documentation.

The following are common academic accommodations that may be required for students with mental illness. This list is not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the official request for academic accommodations as communicated by the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Classroom and laboratory accommodations
  • Allow for preferential seating, either to facilitate better listening or to allow for proximity to an electrical outlet or the exit.
  • Assist in identifying potential tutors and/or note-takers.
  • Allow students to audio-record lectures.
  • Arrange to meet with the student to discuss specific learning needs, strategies for success, alternatives to course assignments, and methods of evaluation when the student provides their letter of accommodation.
Tests, exams, and evaluation accommodations
  • Offer the student alternatives to traditional course work and methods of evaluation (such as an oral exam or presentation instead of a written exam, or an essay instead of multiple-choice and short-answer questions).
  • Allow the student to eat and drink during exams if their medical condition requires it.
  • Allow extra time on tests and/or exams.
  • Allow for extensions on assignments and essays; lean towards flexibility for absences and late assignments.
  • Provide a separate, distraction-free room for writing tests and/or exams.

Remember that students with disabilities do not have to disclose their disability to their professors or anyone else in the academic environment in order to receive accommodations. Unless a student chooses to disclose the nature of the disability to you, you will only receive information on the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation and the accessibility resources and protocols at your university to ensure you are following recommended practices.



Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Disability Information and Strategies

McMaster University, Student Affairs, How to Assist a Student in Difficulty: Making A Good Referral

University of Ottawa, A guide for professors: Minimizing the impact of learning obstacles

Queen’s University, Student Affairs, Health and Wellness, Green Folder

Trent University, Accessibility in Teaching: Strategies and Requirements for Supporting an Accessible Learning Environment

York University, Faculty Resource Guide: Teaching Students with Disabilities

[i] The term Accessible Education has been adopted to capture the value of two frameworks in improving the accessibility of university education: Universal Instructional Design (UID) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Both were informed by the architectural concept of Universal Design, which is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design, The Principles of Universal Design)

“UID is not just about accessibility for persons with a disability – it’s about truly universal thinking – maximizing learning for students of all backgrounds and learner preferences while minimizing the need for special accommodations.” (University of Guelph, UID Implementation Guide)

“UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone – not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (Center for Applied Special Technology, Universal Design for Learning)

[ii] Nilson, Linda B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd ed). John Wiley & Sons.

[iii] Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Mental Health and Addiction Statistics, quoting Health Canada, A Report on Mental Illness in Canada, 2002.