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Five Ways Professors Can Help Students With Mental Illness

These simple yet effective measures may help struggling students.

This month marks the start of the academic year at colleges and universities across the country, a time of great hope and excitement for students and professors alike. However, some students face particular struggles which can impede their learning. One struggle facing many is mental illness.

Indeed, the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) reports very high-rates of mental illness among the post-secondary student population. According to the NCHA, the most common mental disorders among students are anxiety (22% prevalence) and depression (18% prevalence), leading numerous commentators to argue that we are in the midst of a campus mental health crisis.

In other words, professors will likely have a large percentage of students with mental illness in their classes. Can professors, many of whom have no training or experience in these issues, help students with mental illness? The short answer is yes, especially if they adopt the attitude that ‘a little goes a long way’. Here are five simple things that professors can do help.

List Campus Mental Health Resources on the Syllabus

Every college campus has a set of resources in place to help students with mental illness. This includes professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers. It also includes student-led resources such as peer-support centers and self-help groups. Other campus organizations, for example chaplaincies, may also be able to help students in mental distress.

Professors should familiarize themselves with these resources; listing their services, contact details and opening hours in the course syllabus. This list can be useful for students and the professor.

Make Reasonable Accommodations

A mental illness is a disability, recognized as such in legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Indeed, most western jurisdictions have robust laws demanding that colleges must respond to requests for ‘reasonable accommodations’ from students with disabilities. Professors must be aware of these legal obligations and follow the letter of the law.

Better still, professors can imbibe the spirit of the law, responding positively to informal requests for accommodations. For example, a student once told me her anxiety was reduced by random doodling, asking if she could do this during class. I acceded to this request with pleasure.

Minimize Classrooms Distractions

The NCHA states that around 7% of students suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), while over 20% suffer from anxiety. People with ADHD and anxiety disorder may be particularly sensitive to distractions and have difficulty concentrating. As such, professors should ensure that classroom distractions are kept to a minimum.

For example, professors can create a class ‘code of conduct’, asking students to be considerate of others. This can include requests not to eat noisily, use social media, chew gum loudly, slurp drinks or chat with friends in class. Relatedly, students with difficulty concentrating may ask to audio-record classes; a reasonable accommodation which should be granted.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

Some students in class may appear uninterested — tired, yawning and restless. Some professors might consider this a sign of disrespect; however, these are often symptoms of mental illness or the side-effects of psychotropic medications. Indeed this point is beautifully made by young people in the video below, discussing the impact of medication side-effects on education and learning.

Likewise, students with mental illness often must consult with a myriad of professionals: psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, pharmacists etc. This can involve much time in waiting rooms and in medical consults, leading to occasional lateness and missed classes. As such, professors should avoid jumping to conclusions when faced with such behaviors.

Know your Limits

Students regularly share their mental health problems with professors, sometimes in tears and occasionally in crisis. Of course, a listening ear and a supportive word can go a long way in some situations. However, professors are not trained therapists and may have low levels of mental health literacy, training, and knowledge.

Relatedly, many university officials are implicitly discouraging anything that resembles a friendly relationship between students and professors. As such, the best course of action in such situations may be to point students to the campus resources previously listed on the syllabus.


Many professors would instinctively like to help their students who have a mental illness. However, some feel impotent given a lack of mental health literacy, training, and knowledge. The simple strategies outlined in this article can create a win-win situation; preventing misunderstandings and promoting well-being for students and professors alike.

Remember, a little goes a long way.