Conference hears about the ‘hidden disability’ of student mental illness

Most students with psychiatric disabilities eventually go on to academic and career success but may suffer in silence for years, said Enid Weiner, coordinator of York University’s Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program, at a recent conference on the “Canadian Student Experience” sponsored by the Faculty of Education.

weinerRight: Enid Weiner

Although higher education provides opportunities for students with psychiatric disabilities to assume meaningful roles in their lives, Weiner said, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness making it a “hidden disability”. She said mental illness can include depression, Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD) and disorders linked to anxiety, eating, personality, as well as schizophrenia etc.

“As a result of the stigma of mental illness, many affected students are reluctant to disclose that they have difficulties,” said Weiner, adding, “This dilemma is a double-edged sword. They need to disclose to access supports but fear that, if they do, they will be misjudged.”

Weiner tried to dispel many of the myths about students with mental illness, noting:

  • they are as intelligent as the general population of students;
  • they do just as well as the rest of the student body;
  • although some may have relapses that affect their academic performance, they do recover and complete their studies;
  • they are not more violent or dangerous than the general public; and
  • they successfully pursue the full range of careers, as accountants, artists, bankers, CEOs, doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, professors, psychologists, real estate agents, social workers, teachers, Web designers, writers etc.

Weiner said it is important for students with psychiatric disabilities to seek out and take advantage of effective support services, including peer support, that are provided by the University. Disability service providers need to inform professors of the kinds of academic accommodations their clients need without breaching confidentiality. The expertise of the disability provider – knowledge about mental illness, the mental health system and the university system – makes it easier for affected students to deal with the administration and makes it less likely they will withdraw from university prematurely.

“Students with psychiatric disabilities are wonderful models for those of us who have chosen to work in the field of higher education,” said Weiner, “They play a vital role in demonstrating how important it is to never lose sight of our own goals and to view all struggles as part of the trajectory of life, with its constant shifts and variations.”

Students who would like to learn more about the services offered by the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York can visit the PDP Web site, call ext. 55297, or visit in person Room 145, Behavioural Science Building. The office is open from 9am to 5pm, September through April, and 8:30am to 4:30pm, May through August.