Despite the increased availability of resources to tackle the student mental-health crisis across Canadian universities, three in four post-secondary students are unaware of how to access campus mental-health resources.
Undergraduate students voice that there is a disconnect between what is available to students with mental-health disabilities and their knowledge of their rights and resources, preventing them from utilizing accessibility services.
Of those registered with accessibility services at the University of Toronto, mental-health disabilities are more prevalent than all other disabilities combined, according to an emailed statement from the school.
Despite this, students often have little time for conversations with their accessibility department to learn how to navigate within academics, says Jeanette Parsons, director of the Accessible Learning Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Maybe some additional resources could be added,” she says.
Some students may not be aware of the rights they have, for example privacy around the nature of their specific medical conditions. After she was asked by a professor why she required accommodations, a University of Toronto student says, “I didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could say that I’m not comfortable sharing (that information) and still have access to my accommodations.
“It can be hard to stand up and (say) ‘These are my rights, I do not need to share that,’ because these are people that are giving you your marks. These are people who have more power than you.”
Accessibility services have a role to play in helping to educate and inform students and faculty of the privacy needs of students with disabilities, says Jennifer Gillies, associate director of AccessAbility Services at University of Waterloo.
Gillies adds that stigma can also prevent students from self-advocacy. “When I think of the word disability, especially mental-health disabilities, not only is it coupled with a lot of stigma for students, but also sometimes students just don’t resonate with the term ‘disability.’ It’s not part of their personal identity,” she says.
Mitchell Mallette, manager of Student Accessibility Services at York University, agrees. “Overall stigma, particularly with mental-health disabilities, but also with any non-visible disability, students might feel a hesitancy to register with our office.”
A Western University Bachelor of Science student says feelings of self-doubt prevented her from accessing resources when she needed them most. She registered with accessibility services two days into her psychiatric hospitalization, a connection her case worker facilitated.
Before I was hospitalized, I didn’t have a proper diagnosis. I was worried (accessibility services) wouldn’t take me seriously.
“I wish I would have been able to get in touch with (student accessibility services) before I was hospitalized … but I didn’t have a proper diagnosis. I didn’t know what to say to them. I was worried they wouldn’t take me seriously,” says the student.
Michele Anderson, Western’s associate director of Academic Support and Engagement, says reaching out for help is “the first and most difficult step a student can take.”
Western’s Accessible Education team says it is committed to ensuring students without documentation can still access services on an interim basis while awaiting assessment. However, Anderson notes that accessing professionals who are qualified to diagnose mental-health conditions takes time.
If students at the University of Waterloo suspect they have a disability but are disconnected from the health-care system, Gillies says her office plays a role in helping students find support by connecting them with health services, counselling services or assessments for conditions like ADHD.
Student accessibility services at various Canadian universities are striving to close the gap between student awareness and available resources.
Gillies says that the University of Waterloo has incorporated broader language on its promotional materials, such as “conditions, illnesses, injuries, emotional, psychological and physical impacts from trauma, sexual violence and racialized trauma.”
A University of Toronto spokesperson says the school is working to incorporate accessible frameworks into its teaching and learning spaces using Universal Design for Learning principles. The teaching methodology aims to ensure students’ diverse learning needs are accounted for from the time they enroll; the school says this could help mitigate the need for disability accommodations in general.
York University’s Mallette says his department is currently relying exclusively on medical documentation to gain insights into students’ disabilities. With a diverse student population, Mallette says “there’s different social norms around disability,” adding that this can be a barrier to accessing services for some students. He says his department is looking into accepting other forms of non-medical documentation, such as notes from a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or social worker, but he adds that they’re “not there yet.”
York University has integrated peer-mentor support programs in which upper-year students with lived experience of disability help newer students navigate their disability, for example, in having difficult conversations with faculty.
Gillies says there is always room for universities to do more and that students are still slipping through the cracks. “What students aren’t we reaching? Who is not receiving the information that we are putting out there? Who is not identifying with our office? Who are we missing?”