Just deal with it?

“Twenty-four hours a day, I have a pounding pain in the back of my head,” says Shane Driver, a second-year professional writing student. He reports bad pain in both temples, and admits, “It affects my school work a lot.”

Driver deals with “chronic pain syndrome”, a persistent headache his doctors have not yet found an explanation for. Like diabetes, depression, and ADD, Driver’s chronic headaches are not visible from the outside but still affect his schoolwork. “Most professors I’ve had are very understanding about it,” he says. “But there’s been one or two who haven’t been so understanding. They’ll say, ‘Just deal with it.’ ”

Driver plans ahead by taking a lighter course load, but the difficulty of keeping up with one’s academics when one has health issues is a long-term problem for many students on campus. In its  2012 National College Health Assessment, the American College Health Association reported that 55.4% of college students had been diagnosed with health issues, including migraines, back pain, and high blood pressure, in a single year. As well, 3.9% of students said that chronic health problems or serious illnesses affected their academic performance.

U of T has strict policies for petitions, term work, and exams. According to the UTM registrar, a student may write a petition if they encounter “unforeseen and uncontrollable situations” that interfere with their work at the end of term. For health issues, the petition must be accompanied by an official
U of T medical certificate filled out by a doctor. Students can also write a petition if a serious issue prevents them from finishing term work or attending a final exam. But if a student gets unexpectedly ill after they’ve started writing the exam, these petitions no longer apply. Students cannot petition to rewrite an exam, and whether they pass or fail the course is left to their professor’s discretion.

The UTM registrar, Diane Crocker, says these rules are strict but fair: students must know when to seek medical help. If the university allowed a rewrite once the student had seen the exam, there would be a chance that some students would take advantage of it.

“The bottom line is that once you’ve started writing, you’ve deemed yourself well enough,” Crocker says.

Crocker also encourages students to handle exam anxiety through preparation. But what’s the best preparation for health problems that are tolerable one day but intensify the next? “You’ve got to try and stay ahead of it,” says Driver.

According to AccessAbility director Elizabeth Martin, the centre supports students with physical, mental, and learning disabilities as long as they provide medical documentation. “They’ve been great,” says Driver. “I have an advisor there and they offer note-taking services and sometimes extensions, though I’ve never had to use those.”

Similarly, the Health and Counselling Centre has counsellors, nurses, physicians, and a psychiatrist on staff. “For unpredictable situations like panic attacks, we have walk-in appointments where you can speak to a nurse,” says Alison Burnett, the director of the HCC. Students can also book appointments with a counsellor to discuss health concerns.

But Burnett explains that the clinic is fully booked on many days, which points to a need for more resources. She recommends that students take advantage of meditation sessions and attend “Stress Busters”, a weekly workshop that develops the skills needed to deal with stress and prepare for unexpected pressures.

But while helpful resources exist on campus, Driver stresses that people don’t always understand the impact of pain. “If they’ve never had it, people generally don’t understand pain. They think if they had it, they’d deal with it differently,” he says. “But pain would affect everybody the same.”

There’s no easy solution for the tension between health problems and the stringency of academic policies, but there is a need for awareness, both of the impact on an individual  and of the resilience required to deal with it.

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