Interacting with Persons with Mental Illness

There are many simple things you can do to ensure effective and productive interactions with individuals with disabilities. The following are some practical tips for interacting with persons 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 his or her lifetime. 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 information to you. Individuals 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, people 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 the person. 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 people who live with mental illness.

Suggestions for interacting with persons with mental health disabilities

  • Treat a person with a mental health disability with the same respect and consideration that you would show anyone else.
  • Be confident and reassuring. Listen carefully and work with the person to meet his or her needs.
  • If someone appears to be in a crisis, ask him or her to tell you how you can be most helpful. However, in an acute or crisis situation, seek emergency help immediately.
  • Learn about the resources available on campus or in the community to assist persons with mental health disabilities.
  • If you are unsure whether or not to intervene, seek appropriate supports on your campus.

Access Service, Student Academic Success Service, University of Ottawa. Minimizing the impact of learning obstacles: A guide for professors.