Providing Learning Support for Students with Mental Health Difficulties Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

In the Field

Common illnesses and symptoms

The symptoms listed below give a very general indication of the nature of the most common psychiatric disorders affecting the student population. However, the symptoms of two individuals with the same diagnosis may present themselves in very different ways, and many symptoms are common to a number of different disorders. Mental illness should only be diagnosed by a qualified clinician. If severe, some of the conditions listed below may cause problems during fieldwork and medical advice should be sought prior to taking a student with a diagnosed condition on a field course.

Common psychiatric disorders and their symptoms
Condition Common symptoms
Anxiety — anxiety is a normal part of life, but it can impair the ability to function if anxiety levels are very high Agitation, disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating, significant changes in appetite, panic attacks and physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive difficulties and palpitations.
Depression — this is one of the most common forms of mental distress. Low mood, lack of motivation, sense of emptiness, withdrawal, change of appetite, self-neglect, self-loathing, thoughts of hurting or killing oneself increased.
Mania — this is relatively uncommon. When mania occurs with periods of depression it is referred to as bipolar disorder or manic depression Elated mood, rapid speech, little or no sleep, relentless high energy, reckless behaviour, delusions or hallucinations (in extreme cases).
Psychosis and schizophrenia — psychosis is a broad term used to indicate conditions when the person loses contact with reality. Schizophrenia is a psychotic condition, but it is not always easy to diagnose. In students, the most common form of psychosis is drug induced. Disordered thoughts, loss of contact with reality, hearing voices, hallucinations, believing that others are controlling their thoughts or actions, loss of emotional experience or paranoia. Other diagnostic conditions, such as anxiety, depression and mania can manifest some psychotic symptoms if sufficiently intense.
Eating disorders — these are relatively common amongst the student population, particularly amongst young women.
  • Anorexia nervosa is characterised by extreme fear of being fat. Symptoms include very limited calorie intake, rigorous exercise and consequent extreme thinness.
  • Bulimia involves periods of uncontrolled and excessive eating often followed by self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Repetition of behaviours, rituals, checking, repetitive thoughts.
Phobias — these can include agoraphobia, claustrophobia and social phobia. Intense fear, usually with one focus such as heights, rats, spiders, social situations.
Addiction — the extreme end of the use of drugs and/or drink Excessive use of drink or drugs, physical and mental distress source withdrawn. Safety may be compromised if a student is under the influence of drink or drugs. Symptoms can mirror those of other conditions.

(Adapted from ‘Common Mental Health Terms’, Mental Health Training Pack, University of Leicester Student Psychological Health Project,

More detail can be accessed through the section on Further Information. See also Behaviours That Might Indicate Mental Health Difficulties.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock