OCD, College, and Accommodations

By Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee. freedigitalphotos.net

By Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee. freedigitalphotos.net

This post is originally from December 2011.

An interesting article recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  “A Serious Illness or an Excuse” is worth reading and talks about what is happening on college campuses across the country: The number of students requesting accommodations has skyrocketed, and more of these students than ever have some form of documented mental illness. While OCD in particular is not mentioned, the fact that it is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder is evidence enough that  it is present on college campuses.

The article touches on various issues that arise as a result of so many students needing services. Schools are left to figure out how much and how best to accommodate students with documented disabilities. Who should make these decisions – faculty? individual teachers? counselors? disability coordinators?  And what about those students without documented disabilities who request help?  Most likely some of them are indeed suffering from some form of mental illness and have not yet been officially diagnosed, and it is also likely that some students are just trying to take advantage of the system: Get a slip from the counseling center and avoid taking that exam you neglected to study for. There are lots of different scenarios and it is up to individual colleges to develop policies to deal with them.

While laws governing special accommodations in public elementary and secondary schools can be quite detailed, colleges and universities are left to develop their own guidelines within the framework of the ADAA which basically states that these students cannot be discriminated against.

So where does this leave those with obsessive-compulsive disorder?  We already know that OCD is complicated and often misunderstood. While therapists can make recommendations for accommodations, the truth is that sometimes those with OCD don’t know what they need until after the fact. Maybe while reading  for a literature class, someone with OCD gets “stuck” on a page and can’t continue on. Maybe paying too much attention to detail and not enough to the big picture causes problems in another class. These situations can be hard to plan for and might come across as made-up excuses to those who don’t understand. Typical accommodations such as extended deadlines and untimed testing might actually be hurtful, not helpful, to those with OCD.

As more students with documented cases of OCD are sure to arrive on campuses, I envision this problem getting worse before getting better. This is just one more reason to continue advocating for OCD awareness. The more everyone understands the nature of this insidious disorder, the more they will come to realize that the best accommodations for those suffering from OCD just might come in the form of open-mindedness, support, flexibility, and trust.

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14 Responses to OCD, College, and Accommodations

  1. Informative post, Janet. I agree that flexibility is such an important aspect of this. Probably one set of “rules” about how to accommodate students with OCD wouldn’t be effective because of the myriad of ways OCD affects people. It would interesting to know, too, how many students with OCD would actually ask for accommodations. I don’t think I would have–I would never have wanted to reveal what I was going through.

    Thanks for keeping these issues in front of us!

    • Hi TIna, I’d like to think that people feel more comfortable these days talking about their OCD and asking for help, though I certainly realize that is not always the case. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Em Jack says:

    Hi Janet –

    Thank you for re posting this article.

    I read the Wall Street Journal piece as well.

    I appreciate your comment that many of those living with OCD don’t know what accomadations they may need or if it will help. This is the case with our daughter. I also understand the need to prepare students for the real world.

    Our daughter has not attended or participated in anyway academically for her 7th & now her 8th grade school years. We have a 504 plan with what we all thought was a doable plan yet it is not working out. Online classes are not a good option due to her how her contamination issues present. Next year’s high school. What does one do? Very scary!!! Hopefully one day we’ll be looking back on all this breathing a sigh of relief.

    Thanks again –


    • Hi Em, It certainly isn’t easy, is it? I don’t know if your daughter’s therapist has been involved in discussions about accommodations, but if not, maybe that would be helpful? I’m thinking of you and your family, and yes, I do believe one day you will be breathing a sigh of relief. Wishing you all the best!

  3. 71º & Sunny says:

    I actually remember this post from the past! I thought (and still think) it brings up a bit of a perplexing issue. Certainly, to some degree, accommodation is necessary for OCD patients. But, at the same time, too much accommodation becomes enabling. Ugh. Where to draw the line? It’s something my husband struggles with for me all the time.

    • You’ve been around here a long time, Sunny 🙂 I decided to repost some of my older posts because so many of my readers were not around in those “early days.” Anyway, you bring up an excellent point and one I’ve written about and we’ve struggled with as well. That fine line between helping and enabling. That’s OCD for you, never easy!

  4. Lynn says:

    I’m so glad you re-ran this because it is very timely for our family. I also want to mention that for those of you with student-athletes, the NCAA is beginning to address this issue, by putting special counselors in their Athletic Departments. I feel fortunate that my son is heading off to school at a time when people are becoming so much more open to discussing mental illness. It gives me hope that there will be continued breakthroughs in treatment. I’d love to know what success others have had with mindfulness, yoga, etc. Not an easy thing to interest a sports crazy 19 year old young man in, but I am trying!

    • Thanks for commenting, Lynn, and good luck to your son as he enters college. I agree that being open about mental illness makes getting support and treatment so much easier.

    • 71 & Sunny says:

      Hi Lynn. Actually, I think it’s AWESOME that your son is involved in sports. It is a very, very healthy outlet for someone struggling with an anxiety disorder. I think that both mindfulness and yoga are helpful, but to me, they are mostly adjunct types of therapy, much like sports and a healthy diet. They can be very helpful good parts of a healthy life, but CBT/ERP (possibly with meds) is the true centerpiece of a successful recovery. I like to think of OCD recovery as being multi-faceted, with CBT/ERP as the center of the wheel, and all of these other things as the spokes. Anyhoo, just my little ‘ole opinion. Hope this helps.

  5. Abigail says:

    It makes me mad to think of people abusing the accommodations system and giving people who really need it a bad name. When I was in college (and still am), I thankfully didn’t really need accommodations. I was good at masking the OCD I had at that point, and it didn’t stop me from getting good grades. For me, extended testing time wouldn’t really help; I figure if I don’t know it in one hour, I wont know it in two hours. However, it could ease someone’s anxiety to know there were two hours available. I did hear that extended testing time doesn’t really give much of an advantage (if any) to people who don’t need it.

    A friend of mine ended up in the hospital for a few days during one semester, and the teacher was really nice about giving her time to make up the work. That was a situation where the teacher was able to take care of it – the teacher was also familiar with the kind of work that student usually produced.

    I did take a semester off school, but I did it between colleges, so I didn’t have to fill any paperwork out to do it. I can really see a student needing to take time off to focus on health for a while. Also after my associate’s degree, I mostly switched to part time, which probably helped me a lot. I would suggest that as an option to someone planning for college if they thought that full time classes would be hard to handle.

    • Thanks for sharing, Abigail, and I think you bring up some great points, especially that there are alternatives to the traditional “go full time for four years” way of getting a bachelor’s degree. Going part-time can have huge advantages when it comes to our mental health (and finances, also). Also, It sure helps to have support of all kinds along the way.

  6. va says:

    So this might be a different perspective than most people have, and if you don’t like it I am okay with that, but I am of the opinion that accommodations should not exist at the college level. I am a college student myself, and have talked about this with some teachers who agree with me, and I believe that the role of college is to equip students with the skills they will need to thrive in the workplace. At school, with accommodations, it is acceptable to have deadline extensions, have time and a half on exams, and other things that would not fly in a workplace. Your boss will not grant you an extension on your work because you got distracted last week. It will not be okay that you only completed half your work so you need more time. Chances are, your workplace will not provide you with someone to scribe for you unless you are in a position where anyone would have this assistance. Giving students a crutch through school really only hinders them when they get into the workplace. Eventually they need to be able to figure out how to work around their disability without outside help. (Obviously this does not apply to physical disabilities like deafness or muteness that require proper accommodations both through school and the workplace.) While this would be a difficult change to implement, I think it would ultimately help students to realize that the world will not always cater to them…perhaps I am not qualified to speak on the subject though since this is the route I am taking and am somewhat partial to it, and have also seen how people abuse the system.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and you certainly make a lot of valid points. I believe every person’s situation is different. I think, for many people, if they are denied accommodations, they would have to leave college. Maybe this would be a good thing if they are avoiding treatment, as leaving school might “shake them up” enough to seek treatment. However, I think for those who are working hard on fighting their OCD, staying in school with accommodations, could be an important part of their therapy and recovery. It gives them goals, and a focus (other than their OCD). Ideally, if accommodations are allowed, as the OCD sufferer improves with treatment, these accommodations could be modified, and hopefully at some point, discontinued. Again, each case is different, and there are no easy answers here. I wish you all the best as you move forward with your education and life. You sound very motivated!

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