Dyslexia is the most common learning difficulty, and 6% of Finnish higher education students have been diagnosed with it (FSHS, KOTT, 2021).Dyslexia is defined as an impairment involving both reading and writing. A key characteristic in dyslexia is difficulty identifying and processing connections in phonologic (i.e. sound-related) information.
Depression refers to a long-term period of low mood, sadness and/or apathy. Depression involves negative thoughts about oneself, the future, and the surrounding world. It may also involve irritability or anger. A depressed person has difficulty finding joy in everyday things such as meeting friends or succeeding in tasks. They may suffer from sleep problems, either in the form of lack of sleep or excessive sleep. During periods of more severe depression, thoughts or wishes of one’s life ending, or suicidal thoughts may arise. The intensity of the symptoms varies: good periods may be followed by a more severe period.
It has been found that many young people experiencing depression are simultaneously struggling with another issue, such as substance abuse, attention deficit disorders or behavioural disorders, eating disorders, or anxiety.
People battling depression should try to stop to listen to how different activities affect their well-being and adjust their actions accordingly. Paying attention to one’s energy levels is particularly important. It is crucial to ask the student about their current needs for support. Getting social support in studying as well as in other areas of life is very important when suffering from depression, but in many cases, the person’s ability to create or maintain interpersonal relations is temporarily weakened.
About 1% of the adult population have bipolar disorder. Typically, bipolar disorder involves depressive, manic and hypomanic episodes, which alternate at varying intervals. When assessing the change in a person’s mood, the current situation should always be compared against the person’s character before the change. Manic episodes are periods of time when a person’s mood is elevated in a clearly abnormal manner. They are characterised by hyperactivity, talkativeness and flight of ideas, as well as irresponsible behaviour and a reduced need for sleep. During a manic episode, the person might not see their behaviour as harmful and may refuse to see it as having a negative effect on themselves. Hypomania is a milder episode than mania (with milder symptoms). Many affected by bipolar disorder have symptom-free episodes in between the manic or hypomanic episodes.
As burdensome tasks such as a particularly distressing study project may worsen the depression symptoms, stress management skills are key to those with bipolar disorder. The support of loved ones is important in many ways for those battling bipolar disorder.
How can mental disorders affect studying?
Mental disorders and substance abuse may be related to the student feeling burdened and stressed out by studying. On the other hand, symptoms may affect the student’s ability to study and increase the risk of their studies not progressing or being interrupted and worsen their chances of finding a job. That is why, services that advance, support and treat students’ mental health should pay special attention to the special characteristics of studying and focus on supporting the ability to study.
Mental health issues do not necessarily affect studying. However, when students have problems with well-being or difficulty falling asleep or sleep problems, or they experience anxiety or nervousness, they may struggle to keep up everyday routines. As a result, concentrating or learning may become difficult. Medication for the disorder may have adverse effects, such as lack of concentration, restlessness or tiredness, which may also interfere with studies. Please keep in mind, however, that each student is different: having the same diagnosis does not necessarily mean having identical needs in teaching and learning.
As a teacher, you can help the student by encouraging them to talk about their challenges in studying and any needs for support. Changes in the student’s behaviour may be noted by staff members or other students and prompt discussion. ‘How are you?’ is always a good way to start.
Encourage students to contact mental health services if they are not getting the help they need. FSHS (Finnish Student Health Service) offers non-urgent mental health services, while municipalities offer also emergency mental health services.
Tips for student guidance
- Talk with the student about their difficulties in studying and learning and possible remedies.
- Be supportive of the methods that the student has discovered to be helpful.
- Encourage the student to try new ways of studying.
- Help the student to make feasible study schedules and to update them.
- Find out whether they need additional advice on written work, especially on theses.
- Encourage the student in using the knowledge and skills they already have.
- Agree on a follow-up appointment, if possible.
- Underline the importance of feasible plans and adjust the goals and requirements to match the resources of the student and the help available. Both manic and depressed students may have a tendency to overestimate the number of courses they can take. Too high a workload will stall both the student’s studies and the student’s recovery. Slower but surer progress usually supports student’s well-being and allows them to get a sense of accomplishment.
- As major changes in everyday life may be very stressful, you can help the student to seek for support or counselling when preparing for, for instance, practical training or a student exchange period. A study psychologist, for instance, may be a good person to talk to in these cases.
- Remind the student that to do well in studies, it is crucial to take care of oneself by leaving time for personal relationships, physical exercise and hobbies.
- Agree on a study schedule that leaves the student enough time for recovery (including breaks and days off).
Pay attention to course practices
- Studying is easier if the teaching is planned to be as accessible as possible:
- the completion methods and deadlines of courses are flexible
- the material is readily available
- individual support is available for the student and the student is aware of it
- teaching sessions are characterised by an inclusive, open and relaxed atmosphere where it is acceptable that not everyone is equally eager to speak or perform, and different ways to participate are encouraged.
- The student may need additional time to turn in assignments, and this may change during the course if their state of well-being fluctuates during the course.
- Make sure to leave room for recovery during the course: do not set excessively tight deadlines, and keep in mind that students are usually on other courses at the same time, too.
Best practices for examinations and evaluations
- In exams and assessment, you should remember that:
- The student may need a calm working space.
- When needed, discuss group work practices and methods, such as seminars, tutoring and workshops.
Individual study arrangements
Visual-perceptual difficulties refer to difficulties with processing or making sense of visual or spatial information in one’s mind and to create images that support action. In practice, students with visual-perceptual difficulties may find it hard to find their way in the studying environment and find teaching spaces or complete assignments that require them to identify or assemble objects or understand dimensions and patterns.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges may present in tasks requiring concentration or independent study. When diagnosed, attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges are referred to as ADHD.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of neurobiological developmental disorders that affect how an individual communicates and interacts with others, and they sense and experience the surrounding world. The condition is life-long, stemming from anomalous development of the central nervous system.
Mental disorders here refer to particularly to depression, but also to bipolar disorder. Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. Students should listen to themselves and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person feels tense, restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and nervousness or stage fright are very common and natural phenomena among students.
A panic disorder refers to recurrent panic attacks, meaning sudden, very strong experiences of anxiety. Panic attacks may be isolated events or related to general anxiety. Panic attacks are rather common: about 10 to 15 per cent of people experience one in their lifetime.
Each Aalto student has a right to receive reasonable individual study arrangements for medical reasons. A medical reason may be dyslexia, a sensory impairment, mental health condition or learning difficulty. Individual study arrangements should not be seen as a reason to stop aiming for the set learning outcomes. Instead, they are a way of supporting the student in attaining the learning outcomes.
Examples of individual study arrangements include additional time for examinations (1 hour at Aalto), a private space or computer for examinations, or adjusted schedules.
Feedback, comments and questions on the individual study arrangements toolkit