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Kerstin Bothner and Janice C. Stapley, Monmouth University

Kerstin Bothner.jpgJanice Stapley.jpgPsychiatric disabilities have become “one of the fastest growing categories of disability in the college student population” (Belch, 2011, p. 73).  Unfortunately, they are often the least academically supported and encounter stigma and discrimination (GlenMaye & Bolin, 2007).  The societal stigma against those who have psychological disorders creates barriers to obtaining adequate help and support, and the lack of attention to this issue prevents methods for supporting these individuals from being developed and implemented.  The laws in place to protect those with mental health impairments are rather ambiguous, leaving what is considered a “reasonable accommodation" largely up to interpretation by individual universities and disability specialists.  For academic advisors, insight from recent research which highlights the developmental challenges and neurological differences in those who suffer from a mental illness can lead to improved practices and procedures.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2013), 40 million Americans aged 18 and older suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder during any given year; that’s 18% of the United States’ population!  With increased accommodations afforded to students in grades K-12, as well as advancements in psychotropic medications and therapy techniques, more students with psychiatric disabilities attempt postsecondary education (Belch, 2011; Collins & Mowbray, 2005). Students with anxiety disorders are entering the world of academia at record numbers and colleges are not prepared to advise and accommodate them.  In fact, most students with psychiatric disabilities will withdraw from college (Collins & Mowbray, 2005), highlighting the need for improved services for this population. 

Though the specific symptoms and challenges vary across individuals, anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive and irrational fear, dread, and uncertainty (NIMH, 2013).  They are cyclical in nature and can affect various aspects of cognition which are essential for performing well in school (Kiuhara & Huefner, 2008).  Recent research in neuroscience has demonstrated that there are distinct functional and neuroanatomical differences in the brains of anxiety sufferers (Tromp et al., 2012), thus showing that the physiological basis of disorderly fear should receive no less consideration than any physical or learning disability. 

Traditionally aged college students generally fall into the developmental period known as “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2007).  This time is referred to as the “age of possibilities” since young people have the freedom to explore and express themselves, try out new careers, and solidify their worldview.  Ironically, this is also one of the most tumultuous times in a young adult’s life, as this freedom is matched by frequent change and instability.  There is a stark difference between the structured environment of high school and the unstructured, independent environments which emerging adults face at college (Stapley, 2014).  Many students experience changes in their living situations, which include moving in with new roommates and being away from life-long social support networks. Making this transition poses great challenges for all emerging adults and may amplify the stress and coping deficits that already exist for students who suffer from anxiety disorders. For those suffering from anxiety, uncertainty and instability can be daunting.  These students may benefit especially from the developmental advising approach which facilitates the academic, personal, and emotional growth of students by viewing them holistically (Grites, 2013).  In the case of those with psychiatric disabilities, developmental advising includes the consideration of their unique challenges.

Based on our research (Bothner, 2013), managing life with an anxiety disorder is particularly challenging during emerging adulthood.  The increasing number of college students with anxiety disorders necessitates updated training for academic advisors, and perhaps especially for faculty academic advisors.  Since emerging adults are very self-focused (Arnett, 2007), any public discussion of their challenges is embarrassing for them.  Thus, academic advisors and faculty need to be vigilant about maintaining confidentiality regarding their special accommodations. It is challenging to get students to disclose to Disabilities Services, since they are experiencing the “age of possibilities” and many, especially first-year students, want to try to manage their coursework without any accommodations. Based upon our research, we offer the following suggestions.

  • Training for academic advisors should include the specific case of those with anxiety disorders.
  • Developing rapport with the advisee and spending time in relationship building is optimal although not possible in some college settings. 
  • Advisors should ask in a general manner about issues that might affect a student’s schedule and course load. 
  • Though it is not always well received because of financial implications, a reduced course load may be particularly beneficial for this population.
  • Advisors can also facilitate the progress of students with anxiety disorders by advocating for them with faculty who may not understand the specific challenges of doing coursework with an anxiety disorder.

Many intelligent, ambitious students are entering college ill-equipped to handle the college environment and/or rigor of academia without extra guidance.  They “…encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out… Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt” (Tough, 2014).  

According to Collins and Mowbray (2005), interrupting the pursuit of a degree can affect the likelihood that students will return to their studies and often results in “a trajectory of poor vocational outcomes and poverty” (p. 304). With educational persistence lower for those with psychological disorders and proper academic advising being the nexus of student retention, it is imperative that effort be made in developing effective strategies for this population. For those with anxiety disorders, where feeling connected to peers and the institution may be especially challenging, cultivating a strong advisor-student relationship may be the best way to help with attachment to the institution (Drake, 2011) and with maintaining` matriculation through degree completion.

Kerstin Bothner
Research Assistant, Social Development Lab, Psychology Department
Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ

Janice C. Stapley
Associate Professor of Psychology
Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ

Editor’s Note: Janice Stapley is currently working to contribute further to the academic advising body of knowledge through a NACADA-funded Research Grant:  An Examination of Academic Advice Seeking within an Emerging Adulthood Framework.


Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it, what is it good for?  Child Development Perspectives, 1 (2), 68-73.

Belch, H. A. (2011).  Understanding the experiences of students with psychiatric disabilities: A foundation for creating conditions of support and success. New Directions for Student Services, 134, 73-94. doi: 10.1002/ss 396.

Bothner, K. (2013). A Phenomenological Study of College Experiences Among Students With an Anxiety Disorder.  Poster Presented at the 59th Semi-Annual Department of Psychology Conference, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ.

Collins, M., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005).  Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304315.  doi: 10.1037/0002-9432.75.2.

Drake, J.K.  (2011, July/August). The role of academic advising in student retention and persistence. About Campus. Published online in Wiley Online Library doi: 10.002/abc.20062.

GlenMaye, L. F., & Bolin, B. L. (2007). Disabilities and justice: Meeting the needs of social work students with psychiatric disabilities. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(3), 117-131.

Grites, T. J. (2013). Developmental academic advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. M. Miller, (eds.)

Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 45-59). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kiuhara, S. A. & Huefner, D. S. (2008). Students with psychiatric disabilities in higher education

settings: The Americans with Disabilities Act and beyond. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 19, 103-113.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2013). Anxiety disorders (NIH Publication No.09-3879). Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health website: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

Stapley, J. C. (2014). Music and emotion regulation among emerging adults.  In F. R. Spielhagen and P. D. Schwartz (eds.) Adolescence in the 21st Century (pp. 225-238). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Tromp, P. M., Grupe, D. W., Oathes, D. J., McFarlin, D. R., Hernandez, P. J., Kral, T. R., Lee, J. E., Adams, M., Alexander, A. L., & Nitschke, J. B. (2012).  Reduced structural connectivity of a major frontolimbic pathway in generalized anxiety disorder.  Archives of General Psychiatry. 69(9), 925-934. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2178.

Tough, P. (2014). Who gets to graduate? http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html? 2.


Cite this article using APA style as: Bothner, K., & Stapley, J.C. (2014, December). Academic advising:  The Key to increasing retention among students with anxiety disorders. Academic Advising Today, 37(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


# Ben
Wednesday, August 5, 2015 12:49 PM
I was one of these students in college, and having an understanding, nonjudgmental advisor who helped me reduce my course load and make it through my last semester was crucial. The authors are correct that anxiety makes small problems feel big, and so the prospect of getting help within a large universisty administrative structure can be overwhelming; so feeling that someone in the administration (the advisor) is advocating for you is so important.

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