ESOK-hanke 2006-2011


Mental health problems and higher education

Mental health problems can emerge and vary in both effect and duration: some people suffer from them temporarily or from time to time, others suffer them long-term or rather permanently. The disorders can manifest themselves as, for example, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or psychotic symptoms.

Even a long-term illness might not necessarily have an impact on the studies. Usually the biggest obstacles are bias and lack of knowledge.

Mental health disorders are a common phenomenon. Every fourth Finn suffers from them at some stage of their lives and even a serious illness is impossible to predict. The phrases of young age and studies with their changes and challenges are risky periods. The amount of support any student requires depends on how the teaching is carried out and on individual needs and strengths.

Interaction and counseling

Mental health problems have a great variety of effects so it is important to discuss with students what they need as well as how these needs can be met.

With their own behavior and encouragement, the teachers can make it easier for the students to come discuss the challenges they face in their studies and the help they might need. Initiative for conversation might come from the student themselves, a fellow student, a teacher or another member of the staff. The changed behavior of the student might get the attention of the staff or other students and prompt discussion.

Counseling sessions over the personal study plan (HOPS, henkilökohtainen opintosuunnitelma, in Finnish) and other private meetings offer a natural opportunity to discuss difficulties with the studies. The most important thing is that the matter is taken seriously and it is handled confidentially according to the student's wishes.

  • Be yourself. Tell openly and precisely what worries you.
  • Ask if the student has worries or difficulties with their studies, and listen to them - the student will tell you, if they want to.
  • Don't presume to know how the student feels, how they think or what causes their behavior. If you do not understand something, ask.
  • Respect the student's experience and their personal expertise.
  • Discuss whether the student has received support from somewhere else and what other options there might be available.
  • Tell the student what options you as a teacher have and what services your higher education institution offers.
  • Set a date for a meeting with the student so that they can tell you how they are doing and how their studies are coming along.
  • Write down what you have agreed on to do.

If the student seems reluctant to talk, ask them to come back to meet you again later - for any reason they might have.

Teaching and counseling

If teaching has been planned to be as accessible as possible, it can make studying easier: deadlines and ways to complete assignments are flexible, materials are also available online, the atmosphere is encouraging and individual support is available.

Mental health problems don't necessarily have an effect on the studies. The students can, however, have problems with their memory, concentration and focusing as well as with understanding separate ensembles.

  • It might be hard for the student to shut out stimuli from their environment. Because of this, their work gets easily disturbed and it might be harder for them to process and absorb information.
  • It might be hard for the student to plan their work and concentrate on something for extended periods of time.
  • The possible side effects of medication, such as inability to concentrate, feelings of anxiety or exhaustion, might hinder studying.

Every student's situation is individual. If two students having the same medical diagnosis it doesn't mean they necessarily have identical needs for teaching and learning. Discuss with the student what feels difficult with their studies and what might make them easier.

  • Support the helpful methods the student has already figured out for themselves.
  • Encourage the students to try alternative ways to study.
  • Help the student to create a realistic schedule for their studies and keep it updated.
  • Find out if the student wishes individual guidance in, for example, laboratory or computer-related work or study-related activities outside the higher education institution.
  • Find out if the student needs extra counseling with written assignments, especially with their thesis.
  • If needed, discuss methods related to group work, for example, seminars, tutoring and workshops.
  • Help the student to prepare for practical training and student exchange.
  • Assistive technology, such as a computer, voice recorder or a dictation machine for taking notes, might help with the studies.
  • A quiet working space might be needed for both written assignments and for reading.
  • Remind the student that it is important to take care of themselves by, for example, making sure they have time for relationships, exercise and hobbies. These things also help them to cope with their studies.

Don't forget to learn about solutions that help diverse learners and students who suffer from anxiety, as well.

It is useful for teachers and counselors to know about services offered by various sources. These include, for example, the student services of the higher education institution itself, student health services, student union and student association services, student pastors, KELA (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland) as well as the vocational guidance offered by the Employment and Economic Development Offices.

Many practices that promote accessibility help all the students - take a look at other guides on

More information:

Seminars in English

Seminar On Human Rights and Persons with Disabilities in Higher Education

2 December 2009 at 11.00 - 16.3, PharmaCity, Lecture Hall 1, Itäinen Pitkäkatu 4, Turku

The seminar programme >>

Accessibility is for everyone

The third national accessibility seminar organized by ESOK project will be held in Helsinki on 6.-7. May 2009. The number of participants at the moment 112.

Accessibility is for everyone > >