‘As Long As You Don’t Get Sick’: Mental Health on the University Campus – Sarah Forbes

In the past few years, mental health issues have become increasingly visible as an obstacle in university education. Ivy League schools, such as Yale and Harvard, have been faulted for placing standuptostigmastressful burdens on their students without providing access to services that would help them manage the load. Rachel Williams, a student at Yale, wrote of her experience suffering from depression and attempting to navigate the withdrawal/readmission policy, ”Thinking back to that welcome packet, there is a conspicuous omission: ’We love you and want you and will provide for you and protect you, as long as you don’t get sick.’”

In this student’s case, her forced medical withdrawal from campus was prompted by her sense that her safety and security were in jeopardy at her university. Others felt that they were being forced to choose between staying in their programs at the expense of their health, or medically withdrawing with no guarantee of being able to readmit. After Luchang Wang explicitly referred to the readmission policy in her suicide note in January 2015, Yale promised to examine where it can do better. But is it too little too late?

These are the schools that students aspire to attend and educators strive to emulate, and even they are struggling with how to handle the mental health issues of their students. Therefore, it’s important for us to look at the experiences of those affected by these problems in our own community. This winter, Imprint published a feature article (I Don’t Live Here I’m Just Visiting) that discussed one student’s battle with depression and how it impacted her academic success. A key point in her narrative is the idea that the services were never going to be sufficient for the number of students that needed to use them, leading to wait times that could be extremely detrimental.

It took about a month of waiting for my first appointment. And then when I was walking to the bus to go to my first appointment, I got a call saying the counsellor I was meeting was taking a sick day and I’d have to reschedule. The next available time was a month later.

The University of Waterloo has committed to address this issue, but in the meantime students are left in the cold without the tools to handle their symptoms. Untreated mental health conditions can lead to withdrawal from courses, failing grades, late or incomplete assignments, and many other negative outcomes in the classroom. With the aim of keeping students in the university system, what can instructors do to help students?

At a classroom level, there are many actions instructors can take to improve the learning experience for those with mental health issues. A huge factor in student success is the sensitivity of the instructor, and this can manifest in many ways. For a student who has suffered a trauma, some seemingly innocuous subjects can cause flashbacks or anxiety attacks. An instructor who is willing to preface these topics with a warning or allow students to pursue alternate assignments will allow for greater success in their class. For students whose depression leaves them without the energy to complete assignments on time, flexible and reasonable extensions make a huge difference.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss specific accommodations and strategies in more detail, focusing on the debate over reasonably accommodating different needs while still accurately testing the abilities of each student.



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Sarah Forbes

Sarah Forbes is an undergraduate in the Psychology department at the University of Waterloo and a co-op student at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

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