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 them than ever have some form of documented mental illness. While obsessive-compulsive disorder in particular is not mentioned, this disorder is common enough to presume 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. 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 for which you neglected to study. 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 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which basically states that these students cannot be discriminated against.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Students
So where does this leave those with OCD? 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.
My son Dan, like many OCD sufferers, often has trouble with time management, the balance of details within the big picture, and over-thinking. All of these issues have hampered him in college at one time or another. He now knows that he needs to be accommodated with regular, detailed feedback on his projects (he is an artist). Really, that is all he needs to redirect his focus appropriately. But it was an arduous process just to get these simple, yet vital, accommodations in place.
“Typical” accommodations for those with other disabilities often are not helpful to those with OCD. Indeed the results can be just the opposite. Extended time for testing and handing in assignments, for example, can wreak havoc on OCD sufferers. More time means more opportunity to ritualize, and more ritualizing may intensify the OCD. So this “helpful” accommodation can end up hurting students who struggle with the disorder.
To make matters even more difficult, students with OCD are often reluctant to take the initiative to discuss what they need. It is extremely difficult to explain OCD to those who either have preconceived notions or know little about the disorder. Telling a teacher that it takes you much longer to read a book than most people because you have to reread every page multiple times, or admitting that you are so afraid of not doing an assignment perfectly that you don’t do it at all, can be embarrassing and anxiety-provoking for the student with OCD. Again, these situations can be hard to anticipate and may come across as made-up excuses to faculty and staff who do not understand the disorder.
As more students with documented cases of OCD are sure to arrive on campuses, this problem likely will get worse before it gets better. So what can be done to help these students? How can we be sure that they are afforded the chance for a “level playing field” in their education?
We need to continue advocating for OCD awareness. We need to spread the word as to what OCD really is and isn’t. The more we talk about obsessive compulsive disorder, the more we can help people understand how this illness may affect students. And my hope is that the more educated we all become, the more comfortable we will be about talking about OCD and other mental health disorders, thereby reducing the stigma of these illnesses. The more we understand about OCD, the clearer it will be that the best accommodations for students suffering from this insidious disorder just may come in the form of open-mindedness, support, flexibility, and trust.