The following case studies were taken from: IPDPS – Improving Provision for Disabled Psychology Students project, HEFCE Strand Two Project, Universities of York, Middlesex and Aston, http://www.psychology.heacademy.ac.uk/ipdps/ipdps.asp?CurrentPageID=6 (information extracted and accessed October 2006).
Kyla is a postgraduate psychology student with acute anxiety disorder. She developed this at the end of her second year of undergraduate studies. As a consequence her impairment didn’t have an impact on her choice to study psychology, and she chose not to disclose it to her university.
Her experiences impacted on her studies in several ways. She felt consistently in a state of anxiety, and at times would have panic attacks. She found it “incredibly difficult to leave my house, as I knew I would have an attack on the journey to university”, and hated going into busy places such as the student union, which together would make her feel isolated. In addition, Kyla encountered difficulties in lectures: “I found it difficult to see slides because of my blurred vision”. Toward the end of her degree she nearly left the course altogether, as alongside the above difficulties she started feeling unable to concentrate on her coursework, even at home, which she feels impacted on her examination results.
Kyla doesn’t feel that studying psychology conferred any positive benefits in relation to her condition; she sees the two as separate. When she attended mental health-related lectures or seminars, she felt very uncomfortable: “It highlighted to me my difference from everyone else”.
Psychology lecturers and tutors were unable to offer help, since Kyla did not disclose her condition to the department. She chose to disclose to close friends, who gave her the support that she needed at times: “If it was not for the support of my close friends I would not have got through my degree”. Kyla did try the university’s counselling service, but they were only able to offer short term counselling and she was told she needed more substantial counselling support.
Despite these problems Kyla, through hard work and determination, overcame the barriers she encountered, and is currently studying for a PhD.
Kim is a combined honours psychology student with borderline personality disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Kim’s experience of borderline personality disorder impacted on her decision to study psychology, as she would like to specialise in personality disorders, and feels that her life experiences would assist her in helping others.
Her condition has impacted on her degree studies in many ways. Stress, such as that associated with studying, makes dealing with her impairment more difficult: “I struggle more with my illness when under stress”. This then can impact on her studying. Her treatment itself can cause study problems; when she goes through challenging periods of psychotherapy, she is often too distressed to focus on her academic work.
Kim finds it hard to concentrate during long sessions of teaching; she finds “concentrating for three and a half hours with only a fifteen minute break” particularly problematic. Coping with two subjects at once is also challenging.
Kim has found group work particularly stressful. If the group has to have a discussion, due to her ADHD and personality impairment she goes blank and finds it difficult to concentrate, and tends to get upset. She feels very self-conscious about not working, and about juggling a family, and at times feels like she has nothing to contribute. Having spent many years in psychiatric hospitals she also worries about people asking her about her past. However, she feels that now she is accepted and has made many new friends.
In relation to assessment, Kim is allowed to sit exams in a quiet room on her own. However, she still feels extremely anxious and distressed when examinations approach. She has found that this has had an impact on her results, in that she tends to do better for her coursework than on exam assessment. She obtained an A for one of her essays, on a topic related to her mental health experiences, which has given her confidence in herself. She now feels that she is been able to separate off her emotional experience when required to write such academic essays.
Kim has found it very helpful when lecturers and tutors have accommodated her by emailing her slides, allowing her to tape lectures or to leave the room briefly if she feels distressed, making sure she understands what she needs to do, reassuring her about her work, and giving her extensions.
Overall, Kim gains great joy from studying at degree level, as her illness has prevented her from gaining qualifications in the past.
Elinor is a single honours psychology student who has clinical depression and experiences acute anxiety. Initially she wanted to study medicine, but lost interest, and felt that psychology was an obvious and interesting choice that would still incorporate biological topics which she finds interesting.
She found attending biological and abnormal psychology lectures difficult, particularly at times when she was feeling bad, as it would make her feel very self-conscious. However, she gained a better understanding of the biological causes for depression, and came to regard the condition more positively, rather than assuming that it arose from bad life experiences. This has also helped her to understand how her antidepressant medication works.
Elinor’s conditions make it difficult for her to concentrate on her academic work: “My depression causes great problems with my concentration and focus, as I’m always on the verge of a panic or anxiety attack”. However, she has come to realise that it is not only anxiety and depression that make her feel exhausted and consequently miss many lectures and laboratory classes, but also the antidepressants she takes.
Elinor has explained to staff that she wants to overcome her depression and does not want it to be a reason for her not getting through her degree. To her relief she has found them to be very understanding and supportive. Psychology lecturers and tutors have helped her by keeping in contact via email, enabling her to ask questions about various modules.