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Student Counsel

By Anna Wyse
Network, Spring-Summer 2007

Every year, more and more people come to Christine Jackiw for help with adjusting to university while dealing with a mental illness.

‘There is a dramatic rise in students attending post-secondary institutions who have a mental illness,’ says Jackiw, a program coordinator and disability specialist at the Centre for Student Development (CSD) at McMaster University. ‘There are better treatments and illnesses are being managed better prior to attending post-secondary, so more people with mental illnesses are able to attend.’

During the 2005-2006 academic year, 995 students came to CSD for help. Of those, 283 had some form of mental illness. While the centre has always worked with students who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, have mobility impairments or learning disabilities, students with mental illnesses have become the fastest growing population accessing the service.

The first Coordinator for the Disabled position at McMaster was created within the Office of the Registrar in 1988. The Ontario provincial government began providing funding for services for disabled students in 1989. The position remained within the structure of the Registrar’s Office until 1995, when it shifted to the Student Affairs portfolio. Services, programs, and staffing have all changed over the years in response to student volumes, needs, advances in technology, and additional funding.

‘Generally, the leap from high school is a big leap for anyone,’ says Jackiw. ‘Many of the students have had almost daily support by guidance counsellors or teachers. That support would be difficult for us to provide, so we try to encourage independence.’

Obtaining a post-secondary education can be tough enough, but for a student with a mental illness, the support requirements often exceed the limits of what friends and family can provide. In order to ensure that students with mental illnesses are able to achieve their academic goals and develop socially in the same ways as their peers, the CSD has created specific approaches to students with these unique needs.

Students come to the CSD in a variety of ways. They can come on their own, or they can be referred by a faculty member, campus health care provider, or an outside care provider. Even before entering university, a student with unique needs may be identified by a guidance counsellor or special education teacher in secondary school.

Depending on the complexity of a student’s situation and individual needs, the CSD can help with various aspects of a student’s university life. Students begin by sitting down with a program coordinator to discuss the appropriateness of different services, ranging from assistance with their academic work or finding student housing, to registration and financial aid, to picking up books or help with attending classes. Academic accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis with input from faculty members.

‘There is an expectation that the student will be accommodated,’ says Jackiw. ‘If the instructor finds that the specific accommodation requested brought into question the integrity of the course, then the fact that an accommodation will be given is not in question, but the type of accommodation might be subject to negotiation.’

Once the appropriate accommodations have been identified, the centre then puts them into place with help from the student.

‘We have the student be as much of a self agent as possible by setting up any accommodation that they can by themselves. Of course, if the student is ill and needs us to intervene in that, we will,’ says Jackiw. ‘The student is central and we are the network around them.’

‘We encourage the student to do as much for themselves as they can, recognizing that once they leave the university they will have developed the skills to care for themselves,’ says Tim Nolan, manager of disability services and university advisor on disability issues at McMaster.

While all universities in Ontario have an office that accommodates students with disabilities, McMaster has some unique initiatives that were developed to help students with mental illnesses participate in the university community. One student is doing research and resource development, a role that is currently being developed, but may include doing assessments for incoming or new students, conducting research on best practices at other institutions, conducting research on admissions policies for general admission or specific programs in post-secondary studies, and assisting with reviewing and documenting changes to CSD’s policies and procedures.

Another student has been hired to develop cross-cultural mental health programming, to help CSD meet the challenges posed by the intersection of diversity and mental health. The goal, Nolan says, is trying to understand mental health from a different cultural perspective and its impact on the individual. That often means taking a unique approach to each student in terms of his or her service needs.

Different cultures hold different views toward mental illness, explains Jackiw. ‘We try to recognize our own Eurocentrism and challenge ourselves to broaden our service philosophy to become more culturally aware and responsive. For example, western culture tends to rely heavily on individualism and the medical model, whereas other cultures may be more inclusive of societal, familial and spiritual contexts of mental health.’

‘It is important to recognize the additional stigma that one might fear when addressing a mental health service need, for example, as an international student in a foreign country or as a newcomer adjusting culturally to the western world,’ Jackiw continues. ‘Also, other cultures hold their own particular stigma toward mental health, which cannot be assumed to be the same as that held in North America, so it is important to understand and support the student as much as possible within his or her cultural context.’

‘This helps them with integrating into the broader community,’ says Nolan. ‘You would think that because they are here [at university], they must be very in tune with who they are, but that is often not the case. We work with the students to help them with all levels of acceptance โ€“ with themselves, with their families, and their friends.’

Malcolm Smithwick (not his real name), a fourth-year health sciences student, knows all about attending university while dealing with a mental illness. Last year, when he was depressed, he wanted to talk to people who had experienced the same thing. ‘I wanted to speak to people who had been where I was, who related to what I was going through. I felt that they would immediately understand what I was saying, without me having to explain everything,’ he says.

Smithwick now co-facilitates a peer support group, started by the CSD to provide students with a forum to meet and talk to other students with mental illnesses. The meetings are held each Tuesday with the help of Smithwick’s co-facilitator, Jackiw. They usually start with a few minutes of informal talk, followed by a check-in with each person, to give him or her a chance to tell the group how things are going. The group then finds a common issue on which to focus their main conversation. ‘Christine asks great questions to get us to explore the topic,’ says Smithwick. ‘She has a great sense of what is most pressing on people’s minds despite what they say in words.’

Smithwick’s main challenge in dealing with depression while attending university was getting motivated to study. Thinking back, he says he saw studying and working on getting better as two separate things. Now Smithwick knows that completing his schoolwork helped him to feel better, and as he felt better he was able to be more productive. Smithwick feels that the competitive nature of university can trigger some types of mental illnesses. ‘Universities would do well to examine this, as the environment doesn’t give a space for students to take their emotional temperature. The demands are so great and persistent that you don’t have space to grow.’

‘I feel grateful to CSD and to the faculty in my department for giving me this chance to grow as a person,’ says Smithwick. ‘I will miss undergrad because I know that the environment they have created is so rare.’

The CSD’s support for its students does not end on graduation day. The centre helps students plan the transition to wherever they are headed after graduation, whether that is work or further education. ‘The university is just one stop along the way,’ says Nolan. ‘Even while they are students, we are just one point of contact. People have to look after themselves in many ways outside of the university even while they are students. If what we are doing here helps them manage the other pieces of their lives, then we have accomplished what we set out to do.’

For more information about the Centre for Student Development at McMaster University, see csd.mcmaster.ca.

Anna Wyse is a freelance writer working in Toronto.

What Is an Academic Accommodation?
An academic accommodation is an arrangement that is put in place to support a student with a disability. It can be anything from having an extension on an assignment, to being provided with an academic tutor, to writing your exams in a quiet, separate room. Accommodations are provided to ‘level the playing field’ for you. They are available because your disability may put you at a disadvantage compared to other students who don’t have a disability.

For more information and examples of typical academic accommodations, see ‘Your Education โ€“ Your Future: A Guide to College and University for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities’ (2004), available at www.cmha.ca/youreducation.

Mad Students Society
‘It is very cool that young people are mobilizing to advocate for themselves and to support each other,’ says Lucy Costa. Costa is a founding member of the Mad Students Society (MSS), a group that supports and empowers students who have experience with the psychiatric system.

The group was formed in April 2005 to address the lack of peer support for students in post-secondary education, and to address systemic issues. The group has been meeting once a month, both to discuss ‘action and advocacy’ and to provide peer support for its members. While the meetings are held in Toronto, the group is open to membership by any student in post-secondary education, anywhere in the country.

‘One of the reasons that the group was started was because there are students who do not identify as having a mental illness,’ says member Jeremiah Bach. ‘We feel that the idea of mental illness is just one perspective. We accept people who identify as mentally ill, but we also work to provide alternative ways of looking at experience and community.’

‘The word mad is reclaimed as an alternative to mental illness, not a synonym for it,’ continues Bach. ‘It has historical roots as a term people used before psychiatry was developed.’

In 2006 the MSS conducted a survey to determine what experiences post-secondary students were having with disability offices and what sorts of accommodations students were using. The survey helped MSS to identify several issues on which to focus their future advocacy work.

Many students who responded to the survey felt that there were institutional barriers to accommodation, such as the need to submit medical documentation of their illness. Other students indicated that some instructors felt that they could decide which students were disabled, and that accommodation services did not necessarily challenge those instructors. The survey found that the kinds of accommodation offered often presumed a student’s needs, and were not grounded in research or consultations with the students who used them.

It’s not that students lack the skills or competency to complete a degree, Costa explains. What’s important is that they feel supported in getting the accommodations they need.

‘We are a solidified group that is interested in moving an advocacy agenda forward in post-secondary institutions,’ says Costa. ‘We want to keep students from feeling isolated, and we want to share information about our history and culture as a community, rich with a diversity of perspectives.’

For more information, see www.madstudentsociety.com.

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