Sunday, 24 March 2013

Link: Depression at University (updated)

A student who suffered from depression at University wrote this:
"After not doing too well in my exams that year and being told I couldn’t do honours because of it, I went to see my advisor and told him about my situation. I then went to see my course advisor and took a letter from both my doctor and counsellor to back up my story. I later received an email stating that there was no room on honours for me and that I would have to take an alternative route. At the time I didn’t want to speak out about it as I was ashamed of my own condition but as I get older and wiser I realise that discrimination of those with mental illness is much deeper than I thought in individuals and within companies or institutions."
Interesting to me that as a faculty member naturally think of all the reasons that might have led to her being refused entry to honours.  (Of course I know nothing about the situation.)  She should have raised this earlier, she should retake the year or she will not be prepared for honours, we can only act with the information we have at the time we have it and our handbook clearly states ...

And yet....


Yes I'm updating this 40 minutes after writing it.

I struggled with so many thoughts and just couldn't get them down - or maybe just bottled out.  So I just ended "And yet..."

The thoughts I was struggling with cover some of the following ground.   Again, of course, without knowing the details of the situation.

This young woman has had her academic career ended early by depression, and most likely she could have completed her degree with honours because she was able to start it.   So was she the victim of discrimination?  And if she was, is it likely I could have been guilty of that kind of discrimination if I had been in the place of the academics who denied her entry into honours?

I think what worries me most is that I think the answer to the last question is probably "Yes".   I did post the thoughts that naturally ran through my head, making it easy to go along with a decision to stop her moving into honours.

If it is discrimination what happened to Victoria, the arguments for doing the wrong thing are so seductive.   They sound right.

End of Update.

P.s. This post comes from Time For Change, a UK organisation with slogan "let's end mental health discrimination".  Its "about us" page says:
"Mental health problems are common - but nearly nine out of ten people who experience them say they face stigma and discrimination as a result. This can be even worse than the symptoms themselves. Time to Change is England's biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination."
They also host many other blog posts about School, College and University.


  1. I am Swedish, and I have no clue what honours is in this context. But if her whole academic career ended because she couldn't have it, it must be important. What is it?

  2. In the UK system a first degree can be either an honours degree or general. The former indicates higher quality and/or more work. Nowadays almost all students who complete degree do it with honours. Honours are divided into 1st, 2:1, 2:2, and 3rd classes. General degrees are not divided in that way.

    "Getting into honours" means one of two things. Either she was continuing with her degree but not allowed to have any chance of getting honours, so forced to move onto a general degree track. Or, because she was judged not good enough for honours, it might be that she could not continue at the university at all.

    Even if it was the first one, it was very bad news since almost all students do honours degrees, so a general degree would not be a lot of use in the job market.

  3. A general degree is also called an "ordinary" degree. See

  4. Checking anonymous posting works...

  5. I think an important point that is too often overlooked is that "discrimination" isn't usually a malicious act carried out by a faceless bureaucracy; it's usually an omission of help by an overburdened individual. Yesterday I received mail from a student who, because of what sounds like a mental health issue, has apparently not kept up with the work of a course I'm just finishing teaching. The course is important; without its content the student will not be able to proceed. The student said they'd thought about finding a private tutor but thought they'd ask me what was available first. I took 15 mins to write a helpful, I hope, reply about the availability of course resources and how to catch up without feeling overwhelmed, and offered to help with any problems that remained after they'd done this (and confirmed that the student was already doing the right thing in the other people they said they were talking to). But I did not offer to met regularly with the student and reteach it one-to-one, which is probably what would be required if they're to do well starting now. Did I discriminate? Well, my choice will lead to the student with a mental health issue doing less well than the same student would have done without the mental health issue, so yes. But if I had done otherwise, the time would have come out of my scarce research time, and the factors that make it scarce already put me at risk of being discriminated against. I'm done with feeling guilty about this kind of thing. One could always do more; it would never be enough.

  6. I honestly don't know what a good way to handle things would have been; neither in the example in the linked story, or in your case, Anonymous.

    I do know that I consider:
    to met regularly with the student and reteach it one-to-one
    is so far from a reasonable effort from a teacher that I would not immediately consider this to be a matter of discrimination, per se.

    If the student is barred from a course progression similar in content to what a fully healthy student could have gone through because the university as a whole is reluctant to give health-based concessions — such as maybe being given the option to retake an exam that was missed due to acute illness problems, or something like that — then this would be far closer to a reasonable charge for discrimination.

    As an example: Anonymous, would you have felt a need to defend your choice in not giving your dyslectic students one-on-one tutoring? How about someone who missed 3 weeks of class due to a sporting accident?

    To my mind, working against discrimination based on mental health issues is about removing stigmata, removing prejudice, and enabling the same sort of special handling that other health issues are already granted. Not necessarily going above and beyond on an individual level.

  7. I'm glad that anonymous posting works and thanks for your comment.

    One way I think about it is to compare against somebody with one leg, who has an _obvious_ disability. Sadly such people are often discriminated against - e.g. lectures on top floor of a building with no lift. But at least it's obvious that's wrong.

    Going back to the original story about Victoria, that's what I worry about. If she had an accident and maybe lost a leg, taking her out for the same time, would they have let her carry on? If not, perhaps there was not discrimination. If so, then there probably was.


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