Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
Discussions on mental health crises in higher education continue to ignore intersectionality, particularly when universities proclaim mental health crises on their campuses. Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, asserts that people’s social identities intersect and should not be isolated or disentangled from one another. We gain a better knowledge of the intricacies of the issues at hand by engaging with them in intersectional frameworks.
Much of the discourse around student suicide revolves around academic rigour, difficulty, or stress. While there is no denying that stress from academics is a risk factor, framing it as the only one is a form of erasure. Intersectionality — including our different social locations and identities — is an important yet often ignored factor in how academic stress impacts each student.
There is a range of stresses and traumas that students experience at different social levels, such as racial, familial, financial, and health or disability concerns, among others. Each of those levels affects how a particular student navigates academic institutions and whether they feel supported or excluded.
In higher education, students without disabilities and neurotypical students are favoured in various ways. For example, the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy forces students in crises to take a leave of absence from the university rather than collaborating with them to find a way to support them in their academic journey. This exclusion is destabilizing, discriminatory, and further stigmatizes students with mental health disabilities. It also denies students the agency to decide what is best for them.
Rather than working with students to provide proper accommodations that could help them improve their mental well-being and academic performance, they are shunned out by their institution — considered a liability. In addition, the university can further aggravate pre-existing conditions and stress by requesting formal documentation, something that not all students are able to provide, in order for them to gain accommodations. This can include requesting a doctor’s note to excuse missed assignments, late assignments, tests, and absences.
This process is taxing and time-consuming, and it is not reasonable to expect students in crisis to be able to undertake it. Moreover, the process excludes students with disabilities and neurodivergent students from accessing support, exacerbating their pre-existing conditions and distress.
So, what can universities and instructors do to best support their students? Wellness workshops — and bringing in therapy dogs during in-person exam season — do not address the fundamental issue of the university system favouring students without disabilities and neurotypical students.
Instructors can shift their pedagogy — their approach to teaching — toward a non-traditional way of learning by implementing either mad-positive pedagogy or trauma-informed pedagogy in their teaching.
Mad-positive pedagogy works by addressing and countering the ableism and sanism that is rampant within university practices and systems. For instance, some universities have begun offering Mad Studies, which aims to question what society takes for granted about mental illness.
Trauma-informed pedagogy takes an intersectional approach at recognizing different types of traumas and stresses that range from pandemic-related trauma, historical trauma, individual, community, and other types of general stressors. For example, a study in School Mental Health has shown that teachers who trained under this pedagogical method had increased capacity for relating to students and provided more psychological resources, allowing the teachers to better serve students at vulnerable intersections. All of these intersections impact students’ learning and engagement.
Both of these pedagogies relate to the framework of disability justice, which acknowledges the larger impact, intersectional discrimination, and oppression that people go through due to their disability, gender, race, sexuality, as well as larger structural issues such as colonialism and capitalism. Through these intersections, as the disability justice framework shows, we get a better understanding of why certain bodies and minds are viewed as deviant and how academic institutions play a role in it.
Some universities, such as McMaster University, have an online system that enables students to self-report absences, allowing them to extend deadlines with no external verification. This alleviates part of the load on students, lessening their anxiety and stress and improving their overall mental health.
Similarly, the mad-positive and trauma-informed pedagogies can enable instructors to develop non-traditional methods to help their students. A few ways that instructors can learn from these pedagogies would be to believe their students when they ask for extensions or specific accommodations, negotiate syllabi, and not make assumptions about what would best meet students’ needs.
In short, when your students request accommodations, believe them. Not doing so can harm them, increase their distress, and prevent them from getting the support they need in the future.
Investigating the intersections of mental health and social identities can allow us to find strategies to meaningfully support one another while also addressing structural issues that impact specific populations of students. I believe that, by having these conversations, we can foster an accessible and inclusive environment where students can thrive while making changes through collective efforts.
Aida Alanzi is a fourth-year psychology and linguistics student at UTM.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
Warning signs of suicide include, but are not limited to:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to end one’s life
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.