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Navigating the gaps in mental health support

Grace White writes on difficulties with special consideration at USyd

Woman studying. Woman studying.

Navigating university bureaucracy has always been a maze, but add mental illness to the mix and students face service gaps, misunderstanding and miscommunication.

For students with mental illness, the nightmare of paperwork and administrative goose chases aren’t just unproductive, they work to heighten the symptoms of anxiety in a way that further limits access to mental health resources.

Diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Affective Disorder in my second year of study, over the past few years I have become entrenched in the mental health care system. Weaving my way in and out of psychiatric hospitalisation has made keeping up with my studies a major difficulty. And, as with many mental illnesses, stress aggravates my condition, and will often act as a trigger for episodes of severe anxiety, depression and in my case, mania. It becomes clear, then, that convoluted and callously clinical processes for special consideration have a direct negative impact on students experiencing mental illness.

As we are all now painfully aware, gone are the days of the simple extension. If your condition is likely to be temporary, you can apply for special consideration online, which requires information on your current circumstance and supporting documentation. However, students are often discouraged from accessing special consideration for anxiety, with one student recalling that, “When I went in to talk about getting special consideration for an assignment last semester … I explained it was due to my anxiety (which I’ve had my whole life and was put in hospital for) and her response was “If we gave everyone who was stressed an extra few days, what would be the point of having a due date. You can try to apply online but I suggest just handing it in.”

It is this misunderstanding of anxiety that makes applying for special consideration particularly difficult for students with mental illnesses. It brings to light one of the key misunderstandings of mental health in the university environment, and that is the conflation of stress with anxiety. University staff seem overwhelmingly under-qualified in mental health awareness, and as a result anxiety is often framed as an inability to cope with stress, perhaps to obfuscate the university of the responsibility it should take.

It must be recognised as unfair that people who are untrained in mental health are assessing the extent to which students with mental illnesses deserve special consideration. Another student explained “My special consideration was rejected despite comprehensive medical documentation, which included letters from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurses and a personal phone call from the psychiatric hospital to disability services from the psychiatric hospital in which I was a patient”.

Problematically, there is also no consensus between different faculties, and the subsequent lack of clarity that this creates is highly anxiety provoking, further discouraging students to access the adjustments that they require.

If your condition is long-term, it is advisable that you consider applying for Disability Services. However, Disability Services cannot provide adjustments for issues of attendance, an area that

is left up to the discretion of the faculty and unit coordinators. While it may seem logical that the University emphasises required attendance levels for all students, this neglects mental illnesses affect on students’ capacity to physically attend classes.

October is Mental Health Month, and the theme for this year is ‘Learn and Grow’. The University refuses to do this, however, and remains stagnant and static in its approaches to mental health policy.

If you were distressed by any of the content in this article or are experiencing concern for a friend or family member please contact:

Lifeline – 13 11 14
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia – 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
NSW Mental Health Access – 1800 011 511
If someone has attempted, or is at immediate risk of attempting to harm themselves or someone else, call 000.