The number of students with registered disabilities enrolling in colleges and universities across the United States is continuing to increase, speaking to the myriad of improvements and advancements in technology, legislation, and treatment over the past few decades.01 Jun 2023
The Effectiveness of Campus Counseling for Students with Disabilities
September 1, 2022
The number of students with registered disabilities enrolling in colleges and universities across the United States is continuing to increase, speaking to the myriad of improvements and advancements in technology, legislation, and treatment over the past few decades. Such advances have resulted in the creation of more inclusive learning environments for individuals with disabilities and have improved overall access to higher education. However, students with disabilities continue to face barriers when it comes to integrating in postsecondary institutions. Campus counseling centers have been suggested as a positive way to provide support for students with disabilities who are experiencing academic and/or psychological distress, yet little is known about the use or effectiveness of these services. O’Shea et al.’s (2021) study serves to close this research gap by determining the effectiveness of campus-based individual counseling for students with disabilities.
To disclose disabilities, or not?
While there is an overall hesitation for students to disclose their disability to their college/university, the impact of social and structural stigmatization on students’ reluctance to disclose may be more pronounced for students with certain types of disabilities. On U.S. campuses, psychiatric disabilities (commonly including disorders such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, or schizophrenia) continue to be the largest and fastest growing sub-category of disability amongst college students (Americans With Disabilities Act, 2018), and yet are also often surrounded by the most stigma.
Research indicates that “students with disabilities are at a higher risk in comparison to their peers of experiencing mental health issues on campus, including increased rates of anxiety, academic distress, suicidality, and self-injury (Coduti et al., 2016).” Such statistics further emphasize the need for accessible and high-quality support services on campus.
The effect of therapy on students with disabilities
This academic study was conducted over the span of three years (2016 – 2019) using data gathered from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) — a practice-research network involving multiple stakeholders across more than 600 college and university counseling centers (UCCs) in the United States. Participants were grouped into one of three categories based on a Standardized Data Set (SDS) — students with only psychiatric disabilities, students with disabilities other than only psychiatric disorders, and students with no disability, with the average age being 21.88 years old at the time of their first counseling session. Participants completed a multidimensional self-report questionnaire known as the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS-62) over the course of their treatment to assess any changes in symptoms.
The authors of the article hypothesized that “clients with disabilities would demonstrate significantly lower levels of improvement over the course of therapy than clients without disabilities.” Based on the results of the study, such a hypothesis was correct in that “while students across groups saw a reduction in psychological and academic distress over the course of treatment, students with disabilities experienced less reduction in psychological and academic distress than their non-disabled peers.”
Different levels of academic distress in the student body
According to the gathered data, students with and without disabilities present to counselors with similar levels of psychological distress during their time at college. With that said, levels of academic distress are much higher amongst students with disabilities in comparison to those without. Although reasons for higher levels of academic distress cannot be certain and are largely based on the individual, research has pointed to factors such as negative past experiences with academic tasks and/or instructors serving to reduce self-efficacy (Brockelman, 2009; Gorges et al., 2018; Hartley, 2010) and holding negative beliefs about personal agency in learning thus impeding engagement and motivation (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). In the discussion, it was noted that students with psychiatric disabilities present higher levels of distress than students with other disabilities and those without disabilities. This information emphasizes the importance of understanding the source of distress for students in order to provide appropriate support and ultimately work towards improving mental health and postsecondary outcomes for these individuals.
O’Shea et al’s. research helps to inform best practices when it comes to counseling practitioners who work with students with disabilities. Therapists should do their best to research and be aware of the various issues and complex challenges that students with disabilities may face, including the social, academic, and personal factors that are involved in the transition to college and adulthood. As students experiment with their newfound independence and begin to navigate their sense of identity, “counselors should include in their approach a consideration of the challenge students with disabilities may be facing in terms of navigating complex issues surrounding disability disclosure, the negotiation of intersectional identities, and use of services. As the number of students with disabilities on college campuses continues to grow, postsecondary institutions may also consider providing additional training to counselors to “improve familiarity and effectiveness in working with students with disabilities.” In particular, additional training for supporting students with psychiatric disabilities is recommended given the higher risk for self-injurious and suicidal behavior (Coduti et al., 2016).
Additional research is needed to further explore and understand the various lived experiences, concerns, and barriers to postsecondary education for students with disabilities in order to appropriately inform targeted interventions and approaches to treatment. It is also important to note that the current study categorized participants’ disability type and status based on whether or not their disability was registered with the university office of disability services. Therefore, the academic study is limited in that it does not capture students who do not disclose or register their disability with their university, and may underrepresent or miscategorize those students with disabilities as a result.
1. According to research, “less than one-quarter of students with disabilities in college choose to disclose their disability and make use of disability support services” (Newman et al., 2009), and “fewer than 10% of students with psychiatric disabilities choose to disclose their disability to the university and register with the ODS (Megivern et al., 2003) as the stigma surrounding psychiatric disabilities continues to be pervasive within and outside of academia (Collins, 2000; Stuart et al., 2020).”
2. “Prior research has suggested that students with disabilities are more likely to experience increased pressure in college as students navigate issues surrounding disability, identity, and disclosure in the context of new challenges in the academic and social domains (Cawthon & Cole, 2010).”
3. “Additional research is needed that further explores therapist perceptions of clients’ disabilities among those with visible and non-visible disabilities. Understanding therapists’ perceptions of students with disabilities and various types of disabilities (i.e., visible vs. non-visible) will help to inform training and treatment approaches. There is some evidence to suggest that counselors may be less comfortable or have less confidence working with clients with whom they perceive as having a disability (i.e., the disability is more obvious or visible; Parritt, & O’Callaghan, 2000). Therapists’ perceptions of clients’ disability status may impact treatment goals and expectations, in-session decision-making, and therapist self-efficacy and confidence (Barrett et al., 2013).”
Providing increased access to counselling and treatment services on college and university campuses is a step in the right direction in terms of delivering appropriate support and creating an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities. However, it is also important to recognize that students must be willing to take the first step to access such services. Part of helping our students become self-directed learners is supporting their self-advocacy and help-seeking skills. Providing opportunities for students to advocate for themselves and their needs throughout their elementary, middle and secondary school years, serves as a positive way to reinforce the value and importance of asking for help when you need it—an essential skill when making the transition into college life, newfound independence, and adulthood. Thus, as a special education teacher, I will continue to seek out ways in which I can empower students to take ownership of their learning and model help-seeking behaviors as a way to support the transition to postsecondary education.
O’Shea, A., Kilcullen, J. R., Hayes, J., & Scofield, B. (2021). Examining the effectiveness of campus counselling for college students with disabilities. Rehabilitation Psychology, 66(3), 300–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/rep0000349