Moorpark College student Cheryl Magers finds it difficult to concentrate in class. Her mind wanders when she should be taking notes. Tests are an ordeal. And she worries she'll run out of time.
That is why when her classmates take their final exams this semester, Magers, 21, who has schizophrenia, won't be there. She will take the test across campus at the college's disabled-students office, which provides a distraction- and anxiety-free environment along with an extra half an hour to finish her test.
"I like the alternative testing center, because it is really quiet," she said. "Nobody is getting up and down from their seat, so you can focus better on your exam. And you're more comfortable there because you can bring your drinks in and go to the bathroom if you want to. It's great."
Magers is one of the nearly 10,000 community college students in California who identify themselves as "psychologically disabled," making them eligible for special services and allowances, including priority registration, assigned note-takers and permission to tape-record class lectures.
Virtually invisible in higher education 15 years ago, such students are a growing population on most campuses thanks to the availability of new psychotropic drugs and federal legislation that guarantees the mentally ill equal access to education and employment.
At the state's 108 two-year colleges, students with serious psychiatric disorders now outnumber all developmentally disabled, brain-injured, hearing impaired and visually impaired learners combined.
Statewide, mental illness is the third most common reason students request assistance for a disability, despite the social stigma attached to conditions such as manic-depression and schizophrenia, said Scott Hamilton, disabled students coordinator at the California Community Colleges chancellor's office in Sacramento.
"It has taken longer for students with psychiatric disabilities to know they can go somewhere and get the services they need to be successful," Hamilton said.
Accommodations for mentally ill students are similar to those requested by students with learning disabilities, such as attention-deficit disorder or dyslexia, Hamilton said.
Most campuses offer alternative test-taking arrangements, tutoring and access to audio-taped textbooks, voice-recognition software and other forms of adaptive technology.
Physically disabled students also are usually allowed to register for classes early.
Priority registration allows psychologically disabled students to choose course schedules that fit "when they are at their best," said Leo Orange, coordinator of the Disabled Students Office at Oxnard College. "If someone is on a lot of medication, we don't want to put them in a class at 8 or 9 in the morning, because maybe they aren't completely awake at that time, but are highly functional between 11 and 4."
Other assistance might include the services of a counselor who can speak to professors on behalf of students who may be struggling or have fallen behind because of a change in their medication, a depressive episode or recent hospitalization.
Ellen Young, president of the California Assn. on Post-Secondary Education and Disability, said mentally ill students face real learning obstacles and are not using their conditions as an excuse to "get away with something." If anything, she believes the reverse is true.
"I am certain that there are literally thousands of students walking around on college and university campuses who would qualify for services but are very intimidated by the issue of revealing themselves," Young said. "Some people argue that extended time on tests isn't fair, but the truth is that some students need a higher level of support, and what's fair, not to mention the law, is giving it to them."
Sometimes, just knowing such services exist is enough. Ventura College student Karyn Bates, 55, who suffers from manic-depression, said that although she always takes her exams with classmates, her awareness that "if I couldn't do it, I could ask for help" decreased the anxiety that might have led to failure.
"Otherwise, I would never have made it," she said. "The pressure makes me feel like I can't do it and ... I have to quit."
Patricia Ewins, who directs Access, a center for disabled students at Moorpark College, said the end of the semester is usually a busy time for her staff, which includes a part-time psychologist who counsels students.
"Test anxiety and the stress that comes at the end of the semester is perfectly normal, and everyone has that," Ewins said. "But put that on top of an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder and it's a double whammy."