Mental Illness in the Higher Education Arena

College and graduate students suffering with mental illness may encounter new challenges once they start college or a post-graduate program. This is especially true because some mental health conditions do not manifest until a person is in his or her late teens to mid-20’s. It is important for students with a mental illness and their parents to know their rights and the resources available. Some issues that may arise include confidentiality laws, voluntary and involuntary commitment laws, student medical leave policies, and laws regarding mental health interventions, all of which have to take into account the policies of the educational institution, as well as Federal and state legal requirements.

Two important pieces of legislation are the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). FERPA seeks to ensure access to educational records to students, and sometimes to their parents, while protecting the privacy of the records to the public at large. Under FERPA, campus personnel are permitted to share information from student education records with school officials who have “legitimate education interests” in the information. Disclosure of a student’s education record can also be made to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if disclosure of the information is necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other individuals.

The ADA is another law that impacts students living with a mental illness. The ADA prohibits discrimination against students suffering with a mental illness when the condition “substantially limits a major life activity.” The ADA mandates that colleges and universities provide students with a qualifying mental health condition with reasonable accommodations. For instance, these students may be entitled to take reduced course loads and receive extended deadlines. Other examples of reasonable accommodations the student may be afforded include, but are not limited to, due process protections, individualized assessments, and voluntary leave. Reasonable accommodations are modifications to rules, policies or practices that will enable a student with a disability to meet academic and technical standards. Reasonable accommodation requirements do not necessitate that a school fundamentally alter the essential nature of its programs or its core degree requirements. Additionally, schools are not required to make accommodations that place an undue burden on the school, such as a significant expense.

It is important that you know the rights of your student and your family should a mental illness issue arise during college or graduate studies as well as the rights and/or duties of the educational institution.