A Mental Health Win or Fail?

Navi Dhanota, a York University student won a precedent-setting human rights complaint against the school. She pictured near her home on a cold January day.

Image: A young woman (Navi) with black/brown hair that falls just below her shoulders, standing outside on a sidewalk, wearing a black jacket. She is looking directly at the camera.

Recently, a young women named Navi Dhanota (Phd student) got York University to change its policy around academic accommodations for students with a mental illness diagnosis. Presently, many Ontario universities and colleges require a letter from a psychiatrist stating that the student has a mental illness, the SPECIFIC illness(es) and that because of this they require academic accommodations. Navi did not want to provide a specific mental illness diagnosis and when the University demanded one she filed a human rights complaint against the school with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Her hard work paid off!  York University has changed their policy and now,

“…students seeking supports at York won’t have to label their illness to get help. The school still requires an assessment from a licensed doctor to confirm the student has a legitimate condition that may require faculty flexibility or other supports, but the focus is now on determining how the disability affects their learning. For example, some students may need to take tests at a particular time of day because medication makes them drowsy.” ( Diana Zlomislic, Toronto Star, Jan 12 2016)

As with anything, there are critics. Heather Mallick (columnist, author and lecturer) is very much against this policy change stating:

“The legal requirement that a stigmatizing diagnosis be a secret from helpful universities smells of mould and asylums.” (Heather Mallick, Toronto Star, Jan 15 2016)

Mallick may have a point if her article wasn’t written from a place of what I can only interpret as ignorance and privilege (she lectures on human rights so that’s a little scary). Why keep mental disability a secret she asks? There are many reasons, all of them valid and worthy of respect.

In an open letter to Mallick, Rosalind Robertson makes many great points that I support such as the stigma people face when they disclose their diagnosis, that it is not being our job to educate everyone by being “out”, and a person’s right to privacy.

Those who support and oppose are separated by a line etched in stone. Some that I know stand behind Mallick  and others stand behind Navi. I personally, if you haven’t already guessed, stand behind Navi. Many of us with mental health concerns and have gone on to post-secondary education probably have experience with their academic accommodations department. Please read about my experience with academic accommodations here.

I strongly support York’s policy change because the specific diagnosis shouldn’t matter. What matters is that a doctors identifies there is a need, a “mental disability”, and that support will be needed in certain areas. There is stigma when people find out your diagnosis. Keeping that information to yourself is NOT stigmatizing or taking a step backwards. It is respecting yourself. It is respecting where your story is told and who knows your story. IT IS A PRIVILEGE TO KNOW MY STORY! A specific diagnosis doesn’t tell a person about your learning needs. I gave my specific diagnosis, as required, and they still did not meet my learning needs. Our privacy needs to be respect and our exact learning needs have to become a priority.

Image: a hand partially covering the word “privacy”.

Some are arguing that by keeping the diagnosis a “secret” that they are stigmatizing themselves and contributing to stigma. No. I can see how that can be an argument and I truly do not accept it as a decent argument. People should NEVER be forced to disclose. People should NEVER ben shamed for not disclosing. My health is none of your business unless I chose to let you in. If you can provide a service without specific knowledge then provide me with that service. My borderline personality isn’t the important part. The important part is that I have trouble with my memory, especially when under stress, so I would like to write essays instead of tests. Writing essays allows me time to sit down and go through my knowledge and write it all down so it makes sense. A test makes me think on the spot and tests me on what I can remember, not what I know or how I can apply what I have learned (this is also a critique of testing in general). Knowing I am borderline will not tell you that.

Some may argue that many people are blogging about their mental health issues so why should it matter if they have to disclose to their school. It’s about choice. Blogging about my mental health is something I chose to do. I control what I put out, I get to speak for myself. I don’t need or want to disclose to everyone. If I don’t disclose to someone and they find my blog it goes back to knowing that I have control over how I represent myself. I should be given that same control when seeking academic accommodations.

I am big on choice. I believe we should have more choices in treatment, more choices in ways of being and more choice in who we disclose too. If a student wants to tell accommodations faculty their exact diagnosis then that is fantastic. Schools should not force students to share something about themselves that they may not wish to share. Forcing someone to disclose should not be the only way to receive support! You don’t need to know I am borderline. You need to know what I need. 





10 thoughts on “A Mental Health Win or Fail?

  1. This is a very good post and I agree, it should be up to us if we want to disclose what our mental health issue is. The point isn’t what it is, it’s that if we need help, faculty and staff should try to provide it! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I agree completely. While I believe that one of the first and biggest steps towards destigmatizing mental illness is for those of us who have them to be open and honest about our experiences, that doesn’t mean that everyone is comfortable doing so. Like you said, we are NOT required to educate someone by being out. I am not a teacher. Not everyone wants to be a spokesperson for their disorder.

    People can and do face backlash for being mentally ill. Even if the school is trying to provide academic accommodations, that doesn’t mean that they can (or even would) protect a student from reactionary violence.

    No one should ever HAVE to disclose any part of their medical health to anyone other than a licensed medical professional, and that includes medical health services.

  3. Reblogged this on The Melodramatic Confessions of Carla Louise and commented:
    Particularly as a teacher, I think this is incredibly important and necessary. Even more so, because I suffer from a physical invisible illness as well – and I’ve learnt that disclosing such an illness has resulted in the loss of friendships.
    If a doctor gives the declaration – which they don’t do easily or lightly – then the school should adapt to the student’s needs. End of story.

  4. I also agree that wanting privacy about a diagnosis does not necessarily “smell of mould and asylums.” Privacy is legitimate no matter what type of illness you have. Your thoughts about sharing your diagnosis on a blog vs. with a university also make sense. Sharing a diagnosis anywhere, including on a blog, has the potential to impact your future. Personally, I would rather share on a blog than with a university. A university office is much less intimate than a blog. In the university office, your agency of speech and voice is restricted. On a blog, you can paint the context of your illness with your words, and share the details of your story. So, I think this is a win.

  5. I agree. In general the sort of no pain no gain theory that hurt tons of young athletes has staggered into schools a while ago. If you were in Catholic School you were put on the spot or beaten. This weekend watching Academy award Nominated movies I watched two time pieces where being different was being insane and you require being put in a straight jacket and radiation or shock therapy and those doctors back then are whom many teachers today grew up hearing about pushing people. I used to walk into a test date and the teacher made it verbal. If it were let’s say math and I was called I am an odd lefty when it comes to writing as I am not eloquent. I would look at the problem and just say the answer. I got shunned and if it was not the professor I was accused of cheating. I said I am sorry I can answer this just seeing it (wish I stayed on top of a lot of this these days) but I can’t think that slow to write down 4 parts of a formula, I just know the answer. I would get the same otherwise in other classes. I used to know every one of my grandfather’s horses (40) that ran per month, who they ran against, how the track played, how the horses that they ran against did in their next start and at most I wrote myself little daily reminders and I routinely hit big longshots. My grandfather called it luck.

    Some people can do so much so fast and then suddenly become almost like Jelly with a test. I hated the SATs at the time a 6 part test. I would wonder off while going from one to the next and not even pay attention by the time I hit the last two 30 minute sessions. I had to actually train my brain to adapt to relaxing and staying that way for a good while. It is not something that can be taught the same way you said basically you need to let your mind flow. Your knowledge on the subject should not just be a yes or no or multiple choice. I would often see reason for multiple answers and would argue with teachers and had sessions with them and the department heads and their own answer or all of the above wee the only possibilities. I utilized a running method I used when in 8th grade. If I can run under 12 seconds in a 100 meters and can run a little under 25 in a 200 I did the progressions. It is not just math but the prepping. Now if it were that I could run run 58 seconds in an 800 then drop to 56 and I ran an 800 I do not automatically run 4 seconds faster. If I ran 2 minutes flat going 58/62 that does not mean I can’t go 60/60 or even 62/58. They eventually got my point.

    What is worse are filling out job apps here where you are doing online timed tests that are repetitive and I see 3 of 4 answers right when it is said one way and 3 of 4 but a change when asked a different way. Yet you fail the test. It is a real pain in the ass. Yet the person that wrote the test is a control freak that can’t parallel park, ride a bike, walk a straight line or eat anything but they are perfect in their own mind but you can’t find out with those tests which genius came up with the answer.

    Nobody needs to know your ailments in any way, shape or form unless you are diabetic, allergic to something, contagious, have open wounds, bleeding or have issues getting around due to a handicap of some sort. Those are issues that are need to know. Like you said we all talk here by choice. Which decades ago we were not allowed to and now that we are we should and do.

  6. Great article. I agree with YOU (and Navi). For me, the point is not about stigma, per se, it is about misinterpretation and confirmation bias (seeing only what confirms what you already believe).

    Even doctors make fallacious assumptions about who a person with [fill in the blank] diagnosis IS or is not, what s/he can and can’t do, etc. You and I both know that if you’ve met one person with [fill in the blank] diagnosis, you’ve met ONE person – it says little about the others, much less about what they may need to thrive. Personalities aren’t mental illnesses – and we all have personalities!

    Educators – *especially* educational administrators – do not have the information base to be trusted to do anything with a diagnosis BUT make assumptions. Accommodations can be assessed and granted without “labeling” the need for them according to DSM criteria – and it is clearly discrimination to require it. It would become part of your permanent RECORD, for heaven’s sake – and they play fast and loose with transcript confidentiality!

    Thanks for this. I love your blog. Pinned this to my Mental Health Awareness board, btw.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  7. I’d rather not tell a school the exact issue, it’s really none of their concern. Even BC government didn’t need nor require an exact diagnoses for disability, what they needed to know was why the doctor felt I needed assistance, but there was never a requirement for the diagnoses to be known.

    Not sure what colleges here require, never been to one, would be curious to know if they require an exact diagnoses. Will need to check into it.

  8. Great post. Thank you.
    I’ve always wondered what types of accommodations one could be requesting in the type of situation. Especially when it comes to the work place. Do you have any examples?
    My fear has always been that my boss would share that private information with my coworkers. It is private and I would rather my coworkers not know unless I tell them myself.

  9. I’m a huge fan of choice too. It should be a persons right whether they want to disclose or not. Your mental health if your own business. There is so much stigma surroundint it. well done to her for getting that university to change their policy. X

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