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

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.

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.