Characteristics of Psychological Disabilities

Characteristics of Psychological Disabilities

Psychological disabilities cover a wide range of areas and can include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as chronic mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  While these illnesses may not be curable, they are usually greatly improved with a combination of medication, therapy, and social support.  Students with psychiatric disabilities may require regular treatment or, on occasion, hospitalization.  Emotional concerns may manifest themselves in negative or apathetic attitudes and behavior.  Please remember that these students have as little control over their disabilities as students with physical disabilities.

This information is very general.  If you have any concerns about a student or you are interested in addiitional information, please contact Villanova's Counseling Center.

Depression can be caused by a myriad of reasons including a chemical imbalance, family problems, death of a loved one, or a traumatic event.  The onset of depression often happens when someone is in their late teens and early twenties – right during the college years.  The following factors in a typical college student’s lifestyle can cause or contribute to depression:

  • The stressful experience of trying to balance classes, work, social life, and other conflicting expectations
  • Uncertainty about money
  • Uncertainty about the future after college
  • Homesickness and the experience of leaving one's family for the first time
  • Problems with romantic and sexual relationships, which many students are experiencing for the first time
  • Sleep deprivation and poor sleep habits
  • Poor diet and exercise habits
  • Alcohol or drug abuse, which is a common problem on college campuses
  • Sexual assault, which is also a common problem on college campuses
  • Eating disorder, another common problem
  • The anxiety of coming out to family and peers as a homosexual, another common college experience
  • Dorm and friendship "drama"

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

The symptoms of depression can vary quite a bit. Here are some common ones:

  • An overwhelming feeling of sadness or despair
  • A feeling of hopelessness and that "it's never going to get better"
  • A loss of interest in activities that typically make you happy
  • Physical aches and pains, such as back pain, that seem to have no cause
  • Appetite changes
  • Excessive weight loss or gain over a short period of time
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sleep disturbances (either insomnia or the desire to sleep excessively)
  • Strong feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or low self-esteem
  • Strong feelings of anxiety
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (seek help immediately!)

Anxiety disorders are a unique group of illnesses that fill people's lives with persistent, excessive and unreasonable anxiety, worry and fear. They include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and specific phobias. Although anxiety disorders are serious medical conditions, they are treatable. For many of the individual anxiety disorders, the age of onset often falls during the college years. The median age of onset for OCD is 19, agoraphobia is 20, and PTSD is 23 years of age. College students are faced with emotional, physical, financial and other life changes during college. While the stress of these events do not cause anxiety disorders, they can serve to make the symptoms of an anxiety disorder worse or can trigger an anxiety disorder in someone who is pre-disposed. The following are some common lifestyle changes which can affect a student’s mental health and anxiety:

  • Unhealthy and irregular eating habits
  • Irregular sleep habits and/or lack of adequate sleep
  • Increased use of caffeine
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Irregular use of prescribed medication

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being "edgy"
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • The need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Trembling
  • Being easily startled
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a neurological disorder of the brain caused by an imbalance of Serotonin.  When the Serotonin levels are imbalanced, the messages that go from one part of the brain to the other are confused, resulting in repetitive "worry thoughts" over and over.  These repetitive "worry thoughts" are known as OBSESSIONS and they drive people experiencing them to act out time-consuming rituals known as COMPULSIONS. Obsessions and compulsions take up a lot of time and get in the way of important activities the person values.  OCD affects behavior and causes severe anxiety in those affected.   


  • Thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over again and feel out of the person's control
  • The person does not want to have these ideas.
  • The person finds them disturbing and unwanted, and usually knows that they don't make sense.
  • They come with uncomfortable feelings, such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is "just right."
  • They take a lot of time and get in the way of important activities the person values.


  • Repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person engages in to neutralize, counteract, or make their obsessions go away
  • People with OCD realize this is only a temporary solution, but without a better way to cope, they rely on the compulsion as a temporary escape.
  • Compulsions can also include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions.
  • Compulsions are time-consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values.

Common obsessive thoughts in OCD include:

  • Fear of being contaminated by germs or dirt or contaminating others
  • Fear of causing harm to yourself or others
  • Intrusive sexually explicit or violent thoughts and images
  • Excessive focus on religious or moral ideas
  • Fear of losing or not having things you might need
  • Order and symmetry: the idea that everything must line up “just right”
  • Superstitions, excessive attention to something considered lucky or unlucky

Common compulsive behaviors in OCD:

  • Excessive double-checking of things, such as locks, appliances, and switches
  • Repeatedly checking in on loved ones to make sure they’re safe
  • Counting, tapping, repeating certain words, or doing other senseless things to reduce anxiety
  • Spending a lot of time washing or cleaning
  • Ordering, evening out, or arranging things “just so”
  • Praying excessively or engaging in rituals triggered by religious fear
  • Accumulating “junk” such as old newspapers, magazines, and empty food containers, or other things you don’t have a use for

Warning Signs of Mania

There are a number of warning signs of an impending episode of mania. If you or someone you know has bipolar disorder, you should be aware of these. By learning these early indicators, red flags will go up before a person rockets into a self-destructive whirlwind of mania. These symptoms of mania are organized into broad categories for easier reference:

Changes in Activity or Energy Level

  • Increased energy
  • Decreased sleep
  • Little fatigue
  • An increase in activities
  • Restlessness

Speech Disruptions During Mania

  • Rapid, pressured speech
  • Incoherent speech
  • Clang associations (which can also occur with other mental conditions)

Impaired Judgment Caused by Mania

  • Lack of insight
  • Inappropriate humor and behaviors
  • Impulsiveness
  • Financial extravagance
  • Grandiose thinking
  • Hypersexuality

Changes in Thought Patterns Due to Mania

  • Distractibility
  • Creative thinking
  • Flight of ideas
  • Disorientation
  • Disjointed thinking
  • Racing thoughts

Mood Changes

  • Irritability
  • Excitability
  • Hostility
  • Feelings of exhilaration

Psychosis Associated with Mania

  • Hallucinations (not present in hypomania)
  • Delusions (not present in hypomania)
  • Paranoia (not present in hypomania)
  • Increased religious activities

Warning Signs of Bipolar Depression

There are a number of warning signs that you or someone you love may be experiencing depression. These symptoms of depression are organized into broad categories for easier reference. It is important to note that depression is experienced differently from one person to the next so not all symptoms will present for all individuals.

Changes in Activity or Energy Level

  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Diminished activity
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Social withdrawal

Physical Changes Caused by Depression

  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Psychomotor agitation

Emotional Pain of Depression

  • Prolonged sadness
  • Unexplained, uncontrollable crying
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness

DIfficult Moods Associated with Depression

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Worry/anxiety
  • Pessimism
  • Indifference
  • Self-criticism

Changes in Thought Patterns due to Depression

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Indecision
  • Memory problems
  • Disorganization

Preoccupation with Death

  • Thoughts of death
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feeling dead or detached

Contact Information

Office of Learning Support Services:
Villanova University
Learning Commons in Falvey
Suite 212
800 Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085
Phone: 610.519.5176
Fax: 610.519.8015

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