Studying with mental illnesses

The topic of mental health deserves more attention in the university context. According to a report by the BARMER health insurance fund, mental illness is particularly widespread among students due to time and performance pressures, financial worries and fears about the future, among other things. Despite the increase in media coverage, there are still prejudices and a lack of confidence in dealing with mental illness. Most recently, the focus has been on the effects of the Corona pandemic, which have demonstrably had a negative impact on the mental health of students. The Studentenwerke report a significant increase in requests for counselling at the psychological counselling centres.1

Due to this need, the series of talks "How are you actually (...really) doing?" was organised by the Equal Opportunities Office, the Student Counselling College and the Psychological Counselling Centre of the Studentenwerk OstNiedersachsen in the winter semester 2020/21. This page would like to present the results of the events and is aimed specifically at affected and interested students.

If you would like to know more: The project "Studying with a Mental Illness" of HAW Hamburg and the Hamburg Open Online University is dedicated to the topic in detail and provides helpful information for students and teachers.

How many are affected?

Precise figures are provided by the 21st Social Survey of the German Student Union from 2016, according to which 11% of students nationwide have a health impairment that aggravates their studies. "For 47 percent of those with a health impairment that makes studying difficult, a mental illness is either the only impairment or the one that has the greatest impact on their studies."

A special evaluation of the "impaired studying-best2 study" from 2018 related to Leuphana shows that 56.1% of the Leuphana students surveyed are impaired by a mental illness. The most common among them are depression (45.1%), anxiety disorders (27.3%) and eating disorders (15%). The second most frequent cause was chronic-somatic illnesses in general (19.8). Partial performance disorders such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, concentration disorders and AD(H)S accounted for 7%.

Only 3.6% of all students stated that their impairment(s) would be recognisable to others upon first encounter.

possible challenges during your studies

A study programme is made up of various components, some of which can pose particular challenges for students with disabilities.

period of study

Impairments may have a high impact on the course of studies.

More than one third of the impaired students complete more than ten university semesters (in contrast to slightly more than one fifth of non-impaired students). The connection between health impairments and interruptions in the course of studies is also clear: students with health-related study difficulties interrupt their studies proportionately more than twice as often as non-impaired students (Social Survey, p.37).

If you notice that your capacities are not sufficient for full-time study, you can inform yourself about the possibilities of part-time study or a temporary leave of absence. If you do find yourself in a situation where you are studying longer for health reasons and are asked to pay long-term tuition fees, you can be exempted from the fees by submitting an application and supporting documents.

Compulsory attendance and examinations

There is no general attendance requirement in the study and examination regulations by law. In exceptional cases, attendance can be approved by the study commission as a prerequisite for successful participation, which must be indicated by a corresponding note in myStudy. If teachers require compulsory attendance, you can apply for compensation of disadvantages.

Didactic concepts of courses often aim to ensure that students are present. It can make sense to talk to the lecturer and describe your personal situation in order to find solutions. The representative for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses can play a mediating role here.

The study counselling service offers support in preparing for exams. This is particularly aimed at students with fear of examinations, students in their second or third attempt who are under particular pressure as a result, as well as students who would like to improve their learning methods or techniques. In addition to individual counselling, special workshops or seminars are offered every semester.

In case of illness:

You can withdraw from your registration up to 5 working days before the examination date without indication of reasons.

If you cannot take an examination due to illness, you can withdraw from it even after the withdrawal period of 5 days before the examination date has expired. To do so, you must immediately submit an original medical certificate to the Student Services Office in the case of written examinations or oral examinations, and to the examiners in the case of written academic papers. As a rule, the processing time is extended by the number of days of illness - up to a maximum of four weeks. The certificate should state that the student is unable to take the examination (a regular "certificate of incapacity for work" is not sufficient). The Student Services Office provides a corresponding template.

Further information on missing and withdrawing from examinations

Contact persons at the Student Services

compensation for disadvantages

A mental illness can have different effects on everyday study life. For example, the hurdles can be more social for some and more organisational for others. There is often a great deal of uncertainty in regard to support services and disadvantage compensation. For example, those affected are often not aware that disadvantage compensation can be granted not only for chronic physical illnesses, but also for mental impairments, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders or AD(H)S, depending on the individual case.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, students with disabilities or chronic illnesses have the right to equal opportunities and barrier-free participation in their studies and examinations.

You can find more information on the page "compensation for disadvantages".

How can studying succeed despite and with mental illness?

As part of the series "How are you actually (...really) doing?", the offer to fill an etherpad with personal thoughts and topics was widely used. Questions that preoccupied the students included:

  • Where can I find help?
  • How can I support those affected?
  • How do I help my fellows to get through mental crises?
  • What are methods and ways of dealing with stress?
  • How does self-care work? ("Giving myself time off without always thinking about my to-do list").
  • How can I ask for help?

Here you can find the handouts for the events (German):

As part of the project "Studying with a Mental Illness" of the Hamburg universities, a series of interviews with affected students deals with the personal handling and experiences with illness in everyday study life.

Some tips are listed here:

  • Ask yourself: "What can I do right now and what not?" Learn to articulate your own needs and limits
  • Exchange ideas with others who have similar experiences. There are more than you think!
  • Try to find structures that can be helpful, especially during lecture-free periods. It can be helpful to take advantage of opportunities such as time to write
  • Build in enough breaks and recovery time to recharge resources
  • Use your time of study also as a time for self-awareness
  • Don't try to do everything frantically "as it should be" but study at your own pace. For example, take a semester off, consciously choose fewer courses or try to reduce perfectionism.
  • Divide tasks into small packages so that you always have a sense of achievement.

Psychosocial counselling services

In addition to advice on how to organise your studies, it may be helpful to seek treatment. The decision to seek treatment is a very personal one that depends, among other things, on the individual level of suffering or desire to change the life situation. This decision should not be perceived as failure, but on the contrary as a sign of one's own self-efficacy. The brochure of the Psychological Counselling Centre of the Student Union offers an overview of various forms of therapy and services.

Unfortunately, the path to therapy is often long and sometimes difficult, especially in acute crises. The Psychological Counselling Centre of the Studentenwerk can be a first point of contact in acute crises: Depending on the status of the waiting list, all Leuphana students have a quota of five to eight counselling sessions per year. The counselling centre does not offer regular therapy, but the counsellors will inform you about how to find a psychotherapist and give you an overview of the help system.

collection of links

A comprehensive compilation by the Psychological Counselling Centre on addresses in Lüneburg and in Hamburg and online and telephone services.

"Studying with a mental illness" project of HAW Hamburg and the Hamburg Open Online University

Archipel Referat (Autonomous Department for Chronic Illnesses, Handicaps and Inclusion, Mental Illnesses, Empowerment and Learning Disabilities), a place of exchange for affected students at Leuphana

Young Self-Help Lüneburg

Blog of a student on the topic of mental health

Dealing with depression in relatives