Teaching students with mental illness

Mental illness is common and can affect anyone. Each year the University welcomes students with Mental Health Issues. One in four adults in the UK will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, however according to a NUS survey, eight out of ten students will experience a mental illness while in higher education.

For some students mental illness can be a lifelong disability. Others can experience short term issues that emerge around difficult or stressful life events, while some students may be more at risk of experiencing mental illness in relation to their ethnicity, gender, sexuality or socio-economic background. 

Although attitudes to mental illness have improved significantly in recent years there still remains a certain amount of stigma around the issue. Stigma can often be experienced in less obvious ways such as social exclusion, unkind jokes and fear around disclosure affecting academic progression.

Although each students needs may differ, there are many general strategies that can enable effective teaching and learning.

Some examples of mental illness students may be experiencing:

Neurotic conditions can include depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, phobias, OCD and eating disorders.

Psychotic conditions can include schizophrenia, drug induced psychosis and bi-polar affective disorder.

Good Practice Guidance

General Guidelines - Many of the approaches that will benefit students with mental illness will be helpful to all students and should be adopted within an inclusive teaching framework. Try to avoid making assumptions about what the student can and cannot do; including students in discussions about their learning needs and seeking feedback will help them to feel valued and facilitate improvements in communication, teaching and learning.

Adjustments in class - Be aware of and sensitive to any information/adjustments detailed in the students RAP. While the information/adjustments have been agreed with the student it may be that there is an element of anxiety or embarrassment around these, particularly in front of other students.

Clear boundarie - Being clear about the support you are able to offer and knowing where to signpost students to for further help will allow the students to engage with a varied support network, reducing the chance of students becoming reliant on one person.

  • Offer help and support that is appropriate to your role and responsibilities, and for which you have the relevant expertise and time

  • Focus on reassurance and encouragement

Transitions - When a student first joins GCU they may have to make difficult transitions both socially and academically which can leave them vulnerable to poor mental health. Inclusive teaching practice can be a great support during a time where students will be working to build their support networks in a new environment.

  • Create a welcoming learning environment, this can reduce feelings of intimidation that can sometimes be felt in lecture or classroom spaces

  • Acknowledge that it is a period of  transition and that it can take some time to adapt to new environments

  • Clearly communicate how you can be contacted by email or office and drop in hours

  • Offer an opportunity for students to speak with you in more detail if they have any disability related needs

  • Signpost students to the many and varied support services available at GCU

Study skills - Some students may experience significant challenges in the change of academic pace which can put a lot of stress on mental health.

  • Acknowledge that everyone learns differently, with different styles, strength and weaknesses

  • Encourage early and continual engagement with study skills, by connecting student with the Learning Development Centre

Multimedia - Some mental illness can make it hard to maintain focus in a lecture or seminar environment, the student could also be experiencing the effects of medication which could be affecting their learning experience.

  • Allow students to record the lectures. Students are permitted to audio record their lectures, tutorials and supervision sessions using their own equipment for their own personal learning, in compliance with GCU guidance on the use of recordings

  • Upload lecture slides at least 24 hours in advance of the lecture


Attending university first thing in the morning or late in the day can sometimes be a challenge to a student experiencing mental illness. Poor attendance can also be a strong indicator of a student who could be struggling.

  • Keep a flexible attitude

  • Avoid stereotyping students or making a public issue of their time keeping

Group work - 

  • Assign groups to avoid the social anxiety of finding a group

  • Offer clear guidelines on best practice when working in groups

  • Offer a clear understanding as to how the group will be assessed

  • Monitor group interaction and offer students an opportunity to address any concerns they might have over a group work assignment

 Deadlines - 

  • Liaise with colleagues to try and stagger due dates

  • Be clear in you understanding of departmental extension procedure and MIT’s and the different circumstance when these should be used

 Assessment - 

  • Make assessment deadlines available from week one of the semester

  • Where possible consider offering different assessment possibilities

Book a Staff Awareness Session

We are offering staff awareness sessions on this topic. The sessions will be an informal overview of the topic. Staff will also have the chance to discuss the guidance, it's usefulness and if they feel they have anything to add to the current version.

if you would like to book onto an awareness session please check our eventbrite to see if there are any upcoming sessions, or email us for information. 

If there are no more scheduled sessions for the trimester, we will keep your details on record and contact you when more awareness sessions become available.