UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the last 20 years, the number of students with disabilities enrolling in colleges and universities has increased significantly. Universities now offer more services to accommodate students with disabilities. However, although more services exist and more students with disabilities are attending college, graduation rates for these students have been stagnant.
“We know that there are more services and resources available to students with disabilities, but we don’t know exactly why graduation rates are not increasing,” said Wendy Coduti, assistant professor of rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. “It doesn’t make sense and we need to investigate all factors, including the mental health needs of students with disabilities.”
To study mental health of students with disabilities in postsecondary settings, Coduti led a team of Penn State researchers and analyzed data from Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), a multidisciplinary research network that collaborates with more than 350 college counseling centers across the country. CCMH collects data from counseling centers of member colleges and aggregates them into a single database for the purposes of research, training, advocacy and public awareness.
Using CCMH data collected from the 2013-14 academic year, the researchers analyzed data from 5,696 students with and without disabilities who utilized counseling services on campuses. To draw a comparison, a nonclinical (students not in counseling) sample of 1,620 students with and without disabilities also was explored.
“We looked at both clinical and nonclinical samples of students with and without disabilities because we wanted to see why students with disabilities were going to counseling,” Coduti said, explaining that there may be a misconception, even among counseling practitioners, that students with disabilities attend counseling because of issues related to their disability. But that is not necessarily the case. In fact, students with disabilities are not all that different from students without disabilities and both populations have similar levels of distress, she said.
Their findings, to be published in an upcoming issue of Rehabilitation Psychology, show that students with disabilities who seek counseling experience similar levels of distress, including depression, eating concerns, hostility, family distress and social anxiety, as students without disabilities. Students with disabilities who did not attend counseling sessions also reported similar levels of stress in the same areas.
“This was a big finding for us,” Coduti said. “Students with disabilities are coming to counseling because they’re just like other college students. They’re experiencing the same things that students without disabilities experience when they come to college. Not everything students with disabilities experience is a result of their disability and it’s important for counselors and therapists to recognize that.”
While the experiences of students with disabilities — both clinical and nonclinical — are comparable to students without disabilities, the study also revealed that students with disabilities report higher levels of generalized anxiety and academic distress than students without disabilities.
“If students with disabilities are reporting higher academic distress, that could be a big reason as to why we’re not seeing graduation rates increasing and why retention rates are dropping,” Coduti said. “Why are students with disabilities experiencing this? Are there issues with accommodations? Are students embarrassed to ask for an accommodation? Are colleges and universities not providing enough resources for students with disabilities? These are the questions we need to be asking.”
Another research outcome that generates cause for concern is that both the clinical and nonclinical sample groups of students with disabilities rated higher rates of suicide ideation, suicide attempts and non-suicidal self-injurious behavior than students without disabilities.
“We broke down the different types of disabilities and combined them into four categories — sensory, physical, psychological and learning disability,” Coduti said. “What we found was that students registered with a psychological disability had higher rates of self-harming thoughts and behaviors.” In fact, more than half of the students with psychological disabilities had seriously considered suicide and the rates of suicide attempts were more than two times greater for students with psychological disabilities than for students with physical and learning disabilities.
Students diagnosed with a psychological disorder can include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and/or other mental health conditions.
“People might say that this makes sense but up until now, we never had the data to back that up,” she said. “We didn’t know that we need to focus more on this particular group of students with disabilities.”
Having access to CCMH data to conduct research on students with disabilities provided an opportunity to explore a topic that many counselors have thought about but have not had the means to investigate, Coduti said.
“With this study, we were able to look specifically at students who are registered with their university as having a disability — students who self-disclosed that they have a disability,” she said. “There were some pretty significant findings that hadn’t yet been identified, just because we haven’t looked at a national data set like this before.”
Recognizing that students with disabilities share a lot of the personal characteristics as students without disabilities was enlightening as both a researcher and a counselor, Coduti said. But being able to confirm previously unsupported suspicions as to why students with disabilities aren’t graduating from college is disheartening.
“To me, there’s something broken,” she said. “When more students with disabilities are going to college but they’re not graduating at the same rates as students without disabilities, it impacts their lives significantly. It impacts their ability to get work and stay self-sufficient which we know affects a person’s overall mental health.”
“This study gave us a good starting point to figure out what we need to look at next,” Coduti said, adding that her team will investigate predictors as to why students with disabilities may or may not engage in self-harming thoughts and behaviors.
Jeffrey Hayes, professor of counselor education and psychology at Penn State; Benjamin Locke, associate director of Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS); and Soo Jeong Young, a doctoral student in psychology, also contributed to this research.