Mental Health Difficulties

Challenges and Subjects – this link takes you to challenges and subjects associated with this disability.

Brief description of Mental Health Difficulties

The term mental health describes a sense of well being. It implies the capacity to live in a resourceful and fulfilling manner, having the resilience to deal with the challenges and obstacles that life and studying present.

Depression, stress and anxiety are the most common types of mental illness experienced by students. It is common for students to lack confidence and have low self-esteem despite having the same full range of intellectual abilities as the population as a whole.

Detailed description of Mental Health Difficulties

Definition of Mental Health Difficulties and Mental Illness as included in AMOSSHE Publication Students with Mental Health Difficulties, 2002

  • Those with a pre-diagnosed psychiatric condition for which the person may, or may not, be receiving medical or psychological treatment. For such individuals the difficulties arise when their condition becomes unstable in some way and symptoms recur, which may be as a result of external factors or changes in response to treatment.
  • Those without any diagnosed condition who experience the onset of emotional or psychological difficulties which significantly affect their capacity to function. These may be a temporary reaction to a painful event, being under external pressure of some sort, induced by physiological factors such as use of drugs, lack of sleep, change in diet or physical illness, or they may signal the onset of a psychiatric condition.

Indicators of depression amongst students may include: low mood, lack of motivation, sense of emptiness, withdrawal, change of appetite, self neglect, self loathing, or thoughts of hurting or killing oneself. However, it should be recognised that many people experience some of these symptoms at some points in their lives, indeed some are typical reactions to certain circumstances.

The degree of severity is reflected by the intensity of symptoms and the impact on the individual’s capacity to function. For example one person feeling depressed may mean feeling temporarily low in mood whereas someone else may use this term when they are completely debilitated and unable to take care of basic personal physical needs.


Student life is a transitional period and it can cause a lot of anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can include: agitation, disturbed sleep, change of appetite, headaches, digestive difficulties or panic attacks. These symptoms are easily mistaken by anxious people for evidence of serious physical illness – their worry about this can make the symptoms even worse.

Sudden unexpected surges of anxiety are called panic, and usually lead to the person having to quickly get out of whatever situation they happen to be in. Anxiety and panic are often accompanied by feelings of depression.


There are many ordinary situations that can make students feel stressed for periods of time. For example, if workload is allowed to build up, during exam preparation or during a work placement.

The effects of stress depend on the severity, the length of time it goes on for and the individual concerned. How an individual deals with stress depends on their personality, ability to cope with situations, and whether there is someone supportive to talk to.

Characteristics Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Students with mental health difficulties may experience greater anxieties about learning that other students. Some may take medication that affects their concentration, memory and their ability to participate. Short-term memory may be especially affected.

For many students their mental health may be variable, with good and bad days. This may affect attendance, punctuality and behaviour. Some students may be unable to engage in the learning process until relevant emotional issues are resolved. Progress will be variable, and regression can be common. Success can mean that some students may be reluctant to move on.

Discussion of learning support needs should not involve diagnosis or labelling. It is not necessary to do either in order to ask the student what might assist them. The educational experience may be the first opportunity a student with a history of mental health difficulties has had to put labels aside and concentrate on their academic potential.

People with mental health difficulties can often lack confidence, if tutors can recognise this and promote the student’s self esteem; it will have a positive outcome in terms of effective learning.

Group Work

Problems may arise in a group situation for students with mental health difficulties including prejudice from other group members, communication difficulties or incompatible working practices, especially as some students with mental health difficulties may appear withdrawn or disruptive.

As an important component of many group activities is to devolve responsibility and control to students. Tutors may be concerned that their scope for intervention and to take measures to include all students is necessarily compromised. To mitigate this, systems to encourage groups to take responsibility for the inclusion of all students need to be in place.


Given that periods of examination and assessment are generally the most stressful experiences for students, those with mental health difficulties may need special support at such times. This needs to be discussed and agreed with the student as early as possible.

When accommodations are used or modifications made to assessment, educational providers will also be concerned to ensure parity between disabled students and their non-disabled peers. It is always useful to consider carefully the core requirements of the course and the role assessment plays within it.

Potential challenges to the achievement of learning


External resources