The ADA and Mental Health on College Campuses

Mansie Hough / April 6, 2018

Although they are owed assistance under Federal law, college students with mental illness are often denied their right to accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). The reasons for this vary and include lack of awareness on the part of the institution and a sense of futility among students who bear the burden of continually making their case to their professors and deans.

The ADA is a civil rights law that serves to protect individuals living with disabilities from discrimination by actors such as potential or current employers, owners of places of public accommodation, and all public entities. This applies to students experiencing a wide range of disabilities at both private and public colleges and universities. As is required by law, this should include students with mental and substance use disorders.

According to the ADA National Network, under the ADA, a mental illness must be considered “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual” to receive a reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Similar requirements apply to students seeking accommodations.

Additionally, schools are required by the ADA to make all programs, including extracurricular activities, accessible for students experiencing disabilities.

This can be done in a number of ways, from providing assisted listening devices to students who are deaf to modifying test or workload accommodation policies to students with mental disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD.

These rules are significant and necessary. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by 14, and 75 percent begin by 24. This means that a significant amount of college students are entering their first year already having a mental illness.

On top of this, the transition from high school to college can often trigger conditions that weren’t there before.

When it comes to disabilities that are regarded as concrete and easily identifiable, especially if they are visible to the public, the ADA has helped make higher education a much more flexible, safe, and welcoming environment. While adherence to the legislation hasn’t been perfect – many students still face stigma and higher barriers to academic success and social wellbeing – it has certainly improved learning conditions for those who may have been denied an education 40 years ago.

However, students with mental and substance use disorders are potentially being left behind. While the ADA requires that schools provide reasonable accommodations to students with mental illnesses, students have spoken out to say they were denied these accommodations when they requested them through their schools’ official processes. Students often need to seek legal assistance to navigate these conflicts.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an organization that advocates for civil rights for individuals with mental disabilities, said in a Health Central story that it receives “several” calls a week from students who were suspended, expelled, or forced to withdraw from their schools due to their mental illnesses. And, according to a report by the National Council on Disability, 10 percent of students surveyed said that institutional bias could be creating roadblocks to accessing mental health services.

The reasons behind these misperceptions may have more to do with awareness and familiarity than bias, according to William Meek, Ph.D., Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Brown University and licensed psychologist.

“There might be a knowledge gap on this topic,” Dr. Meek said. “Conditions like ADHD are identified and documented for academic accommodations for a lot of students from an early age because there’s just more general knowledge out there.”

Because the public has a more tangible grasp on what it means for someone to live with disabilities like ADHD, it is much easier to quickly identify what kinds of challenges students experiencing this condition may be facing – and, in turn, what kind of assistance they might need.

This can include a wide arrange of accommodations such as extended deadlines, modified workloads, expanded office hours, and specialized academic advisory services.

“But for folks with conditions like anxiety and depression, people generally are not thinking of it in the same way. It seems that the more common an issue is, the more unlikely it is for people to think of accommodations as something to look into.”

This is a serious issue when considering current rates of youth and young adults with mental illness – in 2016, nearly 11 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode within the last year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And, in 2016, about 64 percent of youth with major depression did not receive any treatment for this condition, as shown in a report from Mental Health America.

Students with behavioral health conditions who don’t receive assistance typically have lower GPAs and higher dropout rates. But, when they receive the support they need, they are successful and live fulfilling, productive lives alongside their peers.

According to Dr. Meek and other experts on this issue, transparency about institutional processes for acquiring accommodations for mental illnesses is a key component to solving this. Outreach materials during first-year orientation, a user-friendly Web (and/or social or mobile) presence, and personable staff who integrate themselves into the community are all examples of ways this can be accomplished.

Additionally, according to the National Council on Disability, students are more likely to seek support when the offices providing mental health and accommodation services are not difficult to find or navigate. A significant and likely path towards improvement in this area is the relationship between staff and faculty and students.

Advocates urge staff and faculty be educated on ADA-protected mental illnesses and trained to see providing accommodations as a useful tool, as opposed to a “slippery slope.” They believe fostering a more open culture among all students (not just those with disabilities) would help alleviate this issue.

They argue that Improvement in this area would help schools and students. Students who receive adequate accommodations and assistance are more likely to succeed academically and professionally, as well as graduate on time – meaning better retention rates and a thriving student population for the school.

From a policy perspective, more transparency, inclusion, and access for students has certainly seemed to be the goal. Since it was signed into law, the ADA has regularly received expansions and progressive modifications focusing on higher education and supporting students with disabilities.

However, the direction the ADA is headed under the current administration is unclear. Most notably, in February 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation – the ADA Education and Reform Act – which would prolong the process for seeking accommodations or compensation for damages due to discrimination.

So, while the core of the legislation will most likely stay intact, there is less certainty surrounding the direction of the ADA as it pertains to college students moving forward. This means that the onus of protecting students with behavioral health conditions is, now more than ever, on the institutions and the students themselves.

The good news, according to Dr. Meek, is that progress is being made every day by the hands of local advocates, community leaders, and educators.

“Movement on these issues is coming from the people,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of activists on the grassroots level raising awareness for accommodations for students with mental health concerns and for disability rights. Anyone interested in this issue should continue to gather more information from their institution about process for acquiring accommodations. Being able to advocate for access for students with mental health concerns will be a key moving forward.”

Those who are interested can follow the lead of organizations like Project LETS, a nonprofit organization that aims to support students and young adults with mental illnesses. The organization consists of students who have experienced behavioral health conditions and are trained to support their peers “outside of their therapy appointments, and in an alternative, friendly way.”

Anyone seeking more information on the ADA at large can visit the ADA National Network’s Web site at ADATA.org, which provides guidance and information on implementation of the legislation.

If you are a student struggling with mental illness or a substance use disorder, talk to someone at your school’s counseling center or visit the Mary Christie Foundation’s list of credible resources.