Mental disorders here refer to particularly to depression, but also to bipolar disorder, which is characterized by both manic and depressive episodes with symptom-free periods in between.
Depression may refer to either a mental state or a clinically diagnosed illness. Typically, depression refers to a long-term period of low mood, sadness and/or apathy. Depression also involves negative thoughts about oneself, the future, and the surrounding world. 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 ending one’s life may arise. The intensity of the symptoms varies: good periods may be followed by a more severe period.
For someone with depression, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how different activities affect one’s mood and feelings, and adjust their actions according to the way they perceive their wellbeing to be at the moment. Paying attention to one’s energy levels is particularly important.
Bipolar disorder is characterised by depressive, manic and mixed episodes as well as symptom-free periods. The symptoms of the disorder change when shifting from one episode to another, sometimes abruptly. Mania refers to a mental state characterised by excessive activity, talkativeness, flight of ideas and very high self-esteem, but also irresponsible behaviour and lack of concentration. During a manic episode, the person usually does not see his or her behaviour as harmful and may refuse to see it as having a negative effect on him/herself.
Although mental health issues do not necessarily affect studying, they may cause problems with memory, concentration, attention span and understanding connections between things. Ignoring environmental stimuli may be difficult for the student, leading him or her to get distracted easily, and making it harder to process and acquire information. Planning ahead and focussing for long periods of time may be difficult for the student. Medication for the disorder may have adverse effects, such as lack of concentration, restlessness or tiredness, which may interfere with studies.
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.
You can help the student by encouraging him or her 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. An accepting environment could help the student take the initiative and tell others about his or her condition.
‘How are you doing?’ is always a good way to start.
Tips for student guidance
- Invite the student to talk about his or her 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 he or she needs additional advice on written work, especially on theses.
- Emphasise what the student already knows and is good at.
- 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 his or her recovery. Slower but surer progress usually supports student wellbeing better and allows them to gain positive experiences.
- As major changes in everyday life may be very stressful, you can offer the student your support in preparing for changes, such as an upcoming practical training or student exchange period.
- Remind the student that in order 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 (breaks, days off).
Course arrangements on the right track?
- Studying is easier if the teaching is planned to be as accessible as possible:
- the completion methods and deadlines of courses are flexible
- course materials are available in time and in a time-flexible form (e.g. online) in addition to hard copies
- individual support is available for the student and the student is aware of it
- teaching situations have an trusting, open-minded, safe and calm atmosphere.
- The student may need additional time to turn in assignments. The need for additional time might also emerge during the course, if his or her condition 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 evaluation it’s good to take into account that:
- the student may need a calm working space to be able to concentrate.
- When needed, discuss group work practices, such as seminars, tutoring and workshops.
For more information see:
Seeking help for mental health? Finnish association for Mental Health
Information on mental health disorders: Finnish association for Mental Health
Individual study arrangements
In Finnish higher education, 4.4% of students have been diagnosed as having dyslexia (Finnish Student Health Service 2016). Reading is slow for people with dyslexia due to difficulties in perceiving and mentally processing the sounds of words and text.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder may present in students as a difficulty concentrating, making mistakes of ‘carelessness’ , or encountering hurdles to independent study.
Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. With mental disorders, it is important to listen to one’s own feelings and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person is feeling restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and performance anxiety are very common and natural phenomena. Anxiety disorders refer to situations where feelings of anxiety are long-term and disproportionate to the situation.