Student Experiences of Mental Health Accommodation

Editor’s Note: The entries below contain various subjective experiences of the Faculty and wider university’s health-related accommodations processes. The students who came forward with testimony had particularly negative experiences but this should in no way discourage students from seeking accommodations to which they are entitled. This piece is meant to highlight the ways the existing system could be improved.

  1. Student #1

I first sought accommodations in November 2014, after sustaining a pretty severe concussion (and starting down the road of post-concussion syndrome). This was the year Alexis Archbold was at Rotman, so the Assistant Dean I was in contact with was Judith McCormack. Nothing but good things to say about Assistant Dean McCormack. Compassionate, warm, reassuring, etc. We adopted a wait-and-see approach with respect to whether I would drop courses and when I would write exams. Because I wasn’t cleared to resume reading until December (and not more than an hour a day until New Year’s), we decided that I would drop down to half-time for the semester by retroactively dropping two classes and writing two exams in the first week of January. We then agreed I would do 16, 16, and 17 credits over my final three semesters, giving me the bare minimum needed to graduate. I felt totally free to take my time and to wait and see how I was recovering and what I thought was within my limits. I also appreciate that she noted in my file in advance her permission to do 17 credits in one of my 3L semesters, because this was the only way I would graduate on time (she knew she would be leaving the deanship before my 3L year, so she wanted to make sure her successor wouldn’t yank the rug out from under me).

The second time was in December 2015, after another slightly-less-serious-but-still-serious concussion. Assistant Dean Alexis Archbold was the point person this time. Rather less compassionate and warm. A complicating factor here was that I sustained the injury right before exams, rather than halfway through the semester, so I had less time to gauge how I was doing and forecast weeks down the road. I also had three papers to write instead of exams, which are more time-consuming. We first agreed on a deadline of the first day of the winter semester; however, I was still fairly messed up by that time and I was given a second deadline of the end of the second week of January (I was informed that there would be no third deadline—while I could turn in my papers later without penalty, I would be required to drop out for the winter semester if I did so). From the first meeting, I did feel rather pressured by her to drop out for the winter semester, even though I would otherwise be on track to graduate on time. I actually felt compelled to misrepresent my progress on my papers at the beginning of January, in order to convince her not to pull the plug. On the other hand, to be fair, I was scheduled for 17 credits in my winter semester, so it wasn’t clear to her that I would be able to survive. As it turned out, I got all three papers in on time (barely, and through an almost-certainly-unhealthy haze of sleep deprivation and concussion symptoms), and finished a very heavy semester intact and with decent marks.

Overall, there was never much doubt that the faculty would accommodate me, so that wasn’t a source of much stress. I had doctor’s notes detailing the extent of my injuries both times, and both times I was prescribed multiple weeks in a dark room without reading. It was obvious that I was unable, at least initially, to bear the burdens of a full academic load. Assistant Dean McCormack was great—I always felt that I was in control of which direction my studies would take, and that I would be allowed to perform up to my limits while being counseled not to exceed them. I felt Assistant Dean Archbold was heavy-handed in her “advice”—while I appreciate that she was trying to advise me on past experience with students with concussions, and the effects of pressing ahead on their quality of life and ability to perform up to snuff academically, I felt that she veered too far toward pressuring me to withdraw for the semester. Frankly, she underestimated how willing I was to say “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead,” and be a tank for 16 weeks.

Perhaps Assistant Dean Archbold was right; I’m not entirely sure that my relentlessness was the optimal approach from a long-term perspective. I’m still dealing with the fallout of the concussions, and I do not and cannot know how things would have been different had I withdrawn for eight months and given myself time to heal without a very heavy course load. Yet I feel great pride in completing U of T law school on time, with my classmates, despite the shit I went through along the way. Had I withdrawn to recover, I would have always felt a sense of shame in failing to make it out on time, notwithstanding the obvious excuse.

I’m not sure how generalizable this is for the accommodations system as a whole. While concussions are technically a mental health issue, since they affected me cognitively rather than physically, I feel like they earn far more credence from the Faculty than less organic mental health conditions. I never sensed anyone considered that I might be less impaired than I was, that I was malingering, or that it was “all in my head” (I mean, it was, but not in that sense). I also had the fortune of not having great setbacks after each injury, and being able and willing to work through lingering symptoms; I imagine that someone with childcare responsibilities or a life outside school might not have been able to do so. Perhaps this will come off as arrogant or smug, but I was also fortunate to have some distance between my normal marks and LPs; the choice to do a substandard semester wasn’t as difficult as it would have been if I was just scraping by. In short, despite obvious bad luck, I still feel like I got off lucky.

  1. Student #2

I’ve often had to be accommodated in one way or another. It didn’t always have official diagnosis and documentation. However, my teachers and professors always saw how hard I worked and participated in class so when they anxiety hit they always felt comfortable giving me extensions. This is the first place I’ve studied where the professors did not have the power to do that.

I appreciate the objectiveness of the process but find it frustrating that my “proof” is never enough. It’s frustrating that administrators who only meet with me at the beginning of the semester or see my pseudonym on paper are deciding how capable I am and how much I “deserve” to be accommodated. I have an accessibility counselor who I’ve met with many times and understands why I can’t do certain things and wants to see me accommodated. It is frustrating when the administration tells me to my face that my counselor’s recommendations will be respected and then calls her behind my back to tell her to change the accommodation.

It’s frustrating to be told that listening to lectures is essential for the curriculum but that I can’t be accommodated beyond a notetaker. It is infuriating that I can only make requests for accommodation appeals in writing and that the request is presented to the appellate panel by the same person who initially rejected it.  I should have been allowed the accommodations that my counselor stipulated instead of having to rely on an utterly unreliable notetaking service.

I was on the same antidepressant and dosage for six years before U of T law. Now I’m on a higher dosage of a stronger medication and regularly taking anti-anxiety medication. having this option is a luxury that not all of my classmates have. No one should have to choose between passing their classes and taking drugs. So far in my time here I haven’t seen any actions by the administration change that, hopefully it might by the time I leave.

  1. Student #3

When I was in crisis, I was in part accommodated effectively. My exams were moved to the deferral period with very little trouble. I am certain this was because I was very open with the faculty about my difficulties, and because I had had a rather successful semester just before.

I wonder, however, whether the options available to students with respect to accommodations are adequate. Pushing exams by two weeks, and then insisting that students write them all in a three-day period seems beyond harsh. My condition had worsened, not improved, by the time the deferral period rolled around. Nevertheless, I was told that if I did not write in that period, I would fail the year and be barred from enrolling in upper year courses. Further, writing three exams in a fifty-hour period is grueling. Few students would willingly opt into that. Indeed, first year exams are typically spread over a week period precisely in recognition of how brutal a condensed schedule can be. Obviously, this challenge is exacerbated by illness. I was exhausted and downtrodden throughout the process; I am sure my academic performance and recovery suffered as a result.

Some things went plain poorly. I noted time and time again that I had serious sensitivities to the subject matter of one of my exams, and that it was going to be a particular challenge for me. On multiple occasions I asked for a private room in which to write the exam, mostly for the sake of my colleagues who shouldn’t have to be distracted by my crying through the exam. Each time, I was refused. I was told that either the faculty did not have enough physical space to have me write alone or that they would be unable to find a proctor to supervise. I should note that this was nearly a month before I was scheduled to write my exams, and that I was writing during the deferred period when only one room was otherwise being used for writing.

When I met with the Assistant Dean, she pried pretty adamantly into information that should be considered private. She asked me if I had experienced this level of stress before, and if I thought it was attributable to being newly in law school. When I told her I was confident it was not, she asked me about my academic performance up to the point that my illness began.  I felt like I was being screened for deserving accommodation. She also asked me about my treatment plan going forward, and offered medical advice contrary to what my physicians had told me. Given her position of authority, it felt like her advice was more a set of demands. She obliged me to keep her apprised of my treatment (especially the effects of new medication) and progress. This is not information to which she ought to be entitled, and yet I felt like I had to provide it in order to get the help I needed.

  1. Student #4

After my accommodations were granted, I was called in for a meeting with Alexis. She spent the duration of this meeting pressuring me to take a leave of absence even though I made clear that I did not feel it was appropriate for me. Despite not having any detailed information about my circumstances, she lectured me on what would happen to my employment prospects if I failed or got an LP. As someone with anxiety, this kind of pressure significantly exacerbated my symptoms and made me feel unwelcome at the school.