October 25, 2021

By Joel Bates

sad student

While going through the intensive university application process, I came across an issue that I felt in my bones was not fair, nor ethical.

A personal tutor asked me if they were permitted to include my mental health difficulties in my reference letter. Taken aback, and at the mercy of the process, I said yes. However, upon reflection, I felt that I was not in a position to say anything else. I needed the reference, and I could not afford to say no.

This personal disclosure did not sit well with me; I felt that including my mental health history as a disclaimer in the application process amounted to forewarning universities of my struggles, and resulting poor attendance, as though it were my fault. My tutor did not want to give a reference that would “mislead a university.” Regardless of my tutor’s intentions, it still did not seem right.

I found myself wondering, would the same request ever be made of a student who had a physical disability causing them to miss classes? Would a potential reference write a glowing letter to conclude with “this student is in a wheelchair, but they mean well”? I doubt it.


Questionable Priorities

I have complex trauma and dissociative issues, both of which significantly interfere with my ability to meet academic expectations when my symptoms are flaring. Throughout my university application process, I felt I that I was being asked to assure universities that my mental health would not get in the way of my studies.

Ultimately, I felt that universities were asking the wrong question.

The question should not be “what can I do to protect my university’s interests?” Rather, universities should ask “what can we do to accommodate our students?”

I am a pursuing a degree in psychology, with the intention of helping others who have struggled with their mental health. In fact, many of the mental health industry’s staff and contributors have their own mental health challenges and reasons for wanting to enter this field and help others. So how can universities be so callous in dismissing people whose lived experiences interfere with their ability to pursue this education?

I believe those of us with lived experience owe it to ourselves and society to challenge “ableism” in academia and lead the way in advocating for fair and equitable opportunities for all.


A Toxic Culture

The harmful, and even toxic, cultural issues within academia place exceedingly high standards on productivity, to the detriment to staff and students alike. Interviews with fellow psychology students highlighted how this academic culture, in which students are expected to produce high-quality work while meeting multiple deadlines, becomes harmful for people with mental illness. As a result, ableism is internalized, normalized and becomes ingrained in the culture.

Despite being — at least in part — responsible for worsening students’ mental health, universities tend to focus more on what they expect from students (and enforcing the consequences of not meeting those expectations) than on how they can provide students with the right help if mental health issues arise. Furthermore, when students do seek help, this help is often limited and overstretched.


An Unnecessary Focus on Diagnoses

At my university, support varies based on whether a person has a “medically recognized” diagnosis. Support for people without a diagnosis includes drop-in therapy sessions, self-help resources, virtual workshops, “well-being” advisors and links to community projects outside of the university, such as support group sessions. These options, however, often had waiting lists of up to six weeks.

Those with medical diagnoses were entitled to a disability allowance (funded by the UK government, not universities), and personalized academic study support plans. While the support plans were designed to give students special consideration regarding assignment extension requests, lecturers were not actually obligated to adhere to the plans. These support options, in my view, do not match the desperate need for mental health support in higher education.

Additionally, many individuals dealing with complex mental health issues are often left without a diagnosis for weeks, if not months, due to the long wait times to see a psychiatrist. It is my view that if universities are to make stipulations around a person’s well-being based on their diagnostic status, then universities should step-up and adequately fund measures to ensure all students can receive such diagnoses in a timely manner.


Deprioritizing Quality of Life

Another issue with mental health services both within and outside universities are the outdated criteria for judging who is (and isn’t) deserving of support. The DSM-5 includes a caveat that disorders must create a significant disruption to everyday life. However, this is harmful as it almost sets up individuals onto a course of destruction for them to be taken seriously.

By this definition, I would be deemed fit to function, and not in need of support, because I manage to accomplish what I need to. What remains overlooked is quality of life. I am certain many academics with hidden disabilities manage to scrape by and tick the “necessary boxes” to meet minimum requirements. The standards represented by education and clinical assessment would say we are functioning. But I wonder, what other choice do we have?


Only Offering Help for Anxiety and Depression

Accessing available support is particularly complicated for people with dissociative, trauma-related and/or psychotic mental issues, as so much of the support offered is catered solely to anxiety or depression.

The available “well-being” staff, I observed, seemed to lack awareness of a variety of psychiatric problems or the impacts of trauma, or wider experiences of social stigma and discrimination that many students from minority backgrounds face. Boilerplate responses to requests for help included:

  • “Have you tried taking a long walk?”
  • “Oh yes, anxiety is horrible, isn’t it?”

All in all, this picture of mental health support at universities is an uncomfortable reminder of just how poor standards are for care in higher education. Students must fight to stay afloat, fight to get support and fight to get accommodations.

Students deserve better.

My hope is that, one day, no one will feel obligated to divulge their health information in any kind of application. I want to see a future in which anyone with mental illness can receive an education with the support and accommodations they need. We are not a burden, and we deserve to be heard, encouraged and supported.


Joel Bates is a graduate student and research assistant studying psychology and neuroscience. He is also an amateur artist; you can see his posts on Instagram at @Noble_artt.

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