Mental Health training sessions should be mandatory. Photo: University of the Fraser Valley.
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Student outlines his unacceptable experience with U of O professor

First year can be tough, not only academically but personally as well. During the first week of classes, the administration and professors promote the idea that it’s okay not to be okay, that if you need anything they will help you find the support you need. But compassion is something that is hard to come by, especially in the middle of a semester.

The University of Ottawa is no exception to this, and students are too often left out in the cold. During my first year at university, the administration and one of my professors severely let me down, and I know I’m not alone. Currently, professors at the university are offered mental health training optionally alongside other members of the community. Professors at the U of O need to be given mandatory mental health sensitivity training.

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In first year, I, like many students, was struggling. I struggled with friends, I struggled with school and after a few months I knew that I needed to find help. I reached out to a counsellor, and after waiting a few weeks, I was able to meet to discuss my mental health. After a few sessions, I was diagnosed with extreme levels of depression. Working together we created ways to help manage it, including deferring a midterm and classwork. I was provided a doctor’s note, but this note was not enough for one professor. They approved the deferral but moved the exam to a conflicting time and then simply ignored my emails.

As a student with a disability, I am registered with Access Service to write all quizzes, tests or final exams. My professor had the responsibility of submitting the midterm 10 days in advance, which they failed to do. I went to see the professor during their office hours to discuss the issue. During this conversation, they were unwilling to accept the fact that it was for a personal reason.

To satisfy their demand for information, I admitted that I suffer from extreme depression and was receiving therapy. Upon revealing this deeply personal and shameful (at the time) fact, they did not believe me. The professor went on to claim that I seem “normal” to them and struggled to understand why a “normal” person would defer a midterm.

After this conversation, I was left in tears, as I was ashamed of my illness and saddened that someone would even think I would use my mental health to gain an advantage. As a result, my depression increased, along with my anxiety.

Access Service was unable to reschedule the midterm. Before class began, the professor called upon me to come to the front of the class to discuss the matter loudly in front of my peers, reversing their previous position and agreeing that there was “something wrong” with me.

Following this humiliation, my counsellor agreed that I should drop the course. Since the withdrawal date had passed, I wrote and asked for a refund. The university denied the request. There was no apology or inquiry into the actions of the professor. It was just a simple “no” and dismissal.

With the help of friends and loved ones, as well as my counsellor, I have been able to move forward, graduating earlier than many of my peers and attending graduate school in the fall, but that isn’t the point.

This story is not unique. Countless friends across campus have had similar experiences, with little to no support from the university. It’s rich for the university to boast how they care about students’ mental health on the first week of classes but when it matters, they turn their back and do nothing. The University of Ottawa needs to stop the slogans and ensure that professors are provided with the right skills and tools to effectively support student mental health.