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Hey, Margaret Wente: We University Students Aren't 'Fragile Flowers'

Mental health accommodations aren't about giving students an advantage over others, but giving them a chance to succeed.

10/04/2017 11:42 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 11:44 EDT
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As a university student and someone involved in mental health advocacy, Margaret Wente's recent article, "Why treat university students like fragile flowers" struck a nerve.

I'm a full-time student, I work two jobs and volunteer with multiple organizations, including Jack.org  —  an amazing national organization promoting youth leadership in mental health advocacy. I also have struggled with my own mental health. There are a few reasons why I believe I'm here and able to write this letter, and chief among those has been my fortunate access to support here at Queen's.

Wente maintains in the article that the institution of the Canadian university is risking its integrity as a place of learning and scholarship in the name of offering students accommodations and support that are, in her mind, unnecessary and over-prescribed.

Statistics dictate otherwise. In a 2016 survey, the Ontario University and College Health Association identified that more than 60 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students deal with "overwhelming anxiety" and nearly half "reported feeling so depressed in the previous year it was difficult to function."

In high school, I received an accommodation to write my math tests and exams outside of the classroom, related to my struggles with anxiety. With this accommodation, my failing test grades became 70s and then 80s. I could do the math, I just needed adjustments made to show I could do it.

This is what accommodations are about at their core: giving students an opportunity to succeed, not giving them an advantage over others.

This is what accommodations are about at their core: giving students an opportunity to succeed, not giving them an advantage over others. A letter was written by the school social worker to allow me to have this accommodation  —  they are often harder to come by in university and require a definitive diagnosis. While I was receiving this accommodation, I knew nothing about mental health (no one was talking about it), I didn't feel comfortable talking about what I was going through (because no one was talking about it), and I felt extremely alone and isolated (again, no one was talking about it).

Many students are talking about it now, and even leading the charge. In my mind, a lot of credit for the move towards more funding and supports for mental health on campus should be given to students themselves who have relentlessly advocated for the support that they need and deserve.

In working in student government and participating in Jack.org's programs, I've seen students plan initiatives and design programming to support and look out for each other, I've witnessed them lobbying their school administrators, and I've heard them advocate on behalf of their communities to all levels of government for better access to support. Somehow, Wente's "fragile flower" analogy doesn't line up. Many of my peers are also tasked with self-advocating and recognizing warning signs in each other, and they are absolutely rising to the occasion.

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Nick Carveth skateboards on Ryerson's campus Saturday April 28, 2012. Carveth had just completed his second year at Ryerson studying social work. He was in recovery from concurrent disorders through CAMH and used skateboarding as a way to reduce his anxiety.

Living with a mental illness or mental health challenges as a student can at best affect focus on a cognitive level, and at worst lead to a struggle to survive. This fact is exemplified by a statistic: in 2009, suicide was the second leading cause of death among those 15 to 34. The risk of suicide attempt is compounded for marginalized populations who may not receive or be able to access needed relevant support, like trans or Indigenous youth. Ongoing legacies of colonization and transphobia-related trauma, intersecting with mental health stigma and resource inaccessibility, are exponentially increasing risk of suicide for young people all across the country.

Why else might suicide rates and mental health struggles be so high for my generation? Could it be the constant barrage of social media we are faced with, leading to 24/7 comparison, overwhelm, and cyberbullying? Could it be ever-increasing tuition costs, which are leading to student food insecurity, the need to balance multiple jobs, and leaving the average loan-receiving student with nearly $30,000 in debt? Or could it be the incidence of sexual assault and violence on our campuses, with a quarter of students at Queen's having experienced assault in their time here? (Queen's Climate Survey, 2015) If this were a multiple choice test, I would answer d), all of the above.

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It seems in this article that Wente doesn't believe these to be legitimate stressors or worthy of compassion, understanding, or attention; but in my mind, the picture is clear  —  whether we're "sensitive" or not, the current suicide rate for our age group and the current inaccessibility of support are so far from being tolerable. We can't simply chalk something like this up to sensitivity and hope it will go away.

Learning the necessary vocabulary to talk about my own mental health, being able to access support and obtaining accommodations has helped me succeed on multiple occasions. If you've never needed those things, I'm glad. As someone who lives and breathes the system Wente speaks of, I know these resources can be difficult to access. Please don't criticize us for needing and using them. With 13 per cent of university and college students having considered suicide in the last year, the existence of these supports could be a huge reason why many of us are still around. Stigmatizing mental health struggles by invalidating the need for or limiting access to relevant, appropriate support, especially for marginalized folks, only negatively impacts our student experience and success.

A buzzword in the mental health sphere right now is resilience, or the ability to cope with challenges one faces by using certain coping mechanisms and proactively learned strategies. The ability to be resilient most often requires the foundation of a community that acts as a support as these coping mechanisms are learned and put into practice. Why are we so against making university, and more specifically the classroom, that community as well?

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