Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Are you sure you're not better?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog, almost entirely tongue-in-cheek, about how my therapist does not like people I speak about. It was meant as an amusing title rather than an accurate description of her opinions towards anybody. After my application to intermit, however, was initially declined, she made her disdain for my university and department quite clear. Understandably too. I've learnt a lot this year. I've learnt some Philosophy, of course. A lot about my Judaism. The capacity of humanity to show complete inhumanity. A selection of random facts. How to make a pun about virtually anything. Yes, Mr Cainer, I am looking squarely at you. But perhaps what I've learnt most clearly is a lot of people just do not understand mental illness. I don't mean other young people. Everyone I have confided in or spoken definitely seems to understand. Unfortunately, it would appear that universities, at least mine, simply do not.

Having decided to intermit just before Pesach (insert religiously relevant yet incredibly tenuous comparison between being freed from slavery and freed from the slavery of a dissertation here), I set about beginning the formal process. I was assured that applications on medical grounds are rarely declined. I was informed that I should submit the application by 9th May and to intermit for Easter, but indicate that I would restart from the beginning of my course. My therapist and I discussed what needed to be included so that we played by their rules. My advisor immediately approved the request with a supporting note that stressed that he concurred that my essays had been negatively affected. All seemed to be going well. I received an email whilst I was bombarding you all with photos of me in New York (why I was in NY might make a little more sense now!) telling me that my application, however, had been declined by the degree committee and my Head of Department. I include the email here:

"Since the medical documentation that you supplied concerned your health problems during the period of November 2015 to March 2016, the Degree Committee felt obliged to treat your request as a backdated request to intermit for last term. The Degree Committee was reluctant to grant backdated requests when the work had already been marked, but felt unable to make a final decision until receiving further guidance from the University about this type of situation. The Degree Committee has since discovered from Student Registry that there is a norm that intermission requests can only be backdated by 30 days, and your request was made more than 30 days after the health problems mentioned in the medical documentation. Consequently, I regret to inform you that the Degree Committee has not granted a request for a backdated intermission in your case."

I had three immediate issues:

  1. I specifically asked when to submit my application and was told 9th May. Had I been told otherwise, had this norm of 30 days been mentioned, I would have submitted within 30 days
  2. I was told to intermit for Easter and never told about the possibility for backdated intermission
  3. Most troublingly, my application was declined based on a technicality that has nothing to do with my condition or mental health. In fact, my mental health was completely ignored when making the decision. What was important was whether it was made within 30 days of my health problems. 
I say I had three immediate issues. I freaked out and blabbered to my Dad about not being told about 30 days. He phoned them up. The reality was much much worse. It's one thing to have rules and to misinform someone about those rules and then stick rigidly to those rules. What transpired to be the case is another thing entirely. 

Apparently, one of the world's best universities does not distinguish between a physical injury and mental health difficulties. Apparently, when I submitted my essays at the end of last term, that was taken as proof that I was completely better. The long and detailed letter my therapist wrote, explaining the difficulties I had been having and the impact it was having on my work and focus was completely ignored because, given I was able to eventually submit the work, clearly I was well. My department thought I simply had the equivalent of a broken arm and once I was no longer stopped from physically being able to write, I had fully healed. That's why my application was backdated. That's why 30 days was relevant. My problems ended the date I submitted my essays and even without considering what my problems were, given they apparently ended 30 days before I submitted the application, it must be declined. 

Except, mental health and physical health are not the same. Not even a little bit. As any sensible person would know. Not my department, though. Not the very people for whom it would be vital to be able to distinguish between the two. The ignorance was startling. Despite a 3 page letter clearly detailing the profound impact the period had had on me and my work, the notion that maybe the essays I submitted, though submitted, were not a reflection of my best work was not even entertained for a minute. I had been penalised for not giving up in February but instead trying to continue. The irony that my therapist explained in the letter that my inability to see exactly how bad it was characterised my condition has not been lost on me. Given my desperate life long search for irony, you can imagine that this made everything okay.

I struggled to explain it to my therapist the next day. Struggled to explain that she needed to inform supposedly the brightest Philosophical minds in the world that mental illness and physical health are two different things. That a broken arm and anxiety were not the same thing. That an absence of physical symptoms does not mean an absence of mental symptoms. That the brute fact I was able to write a few sentences did not mean I was completely healed. Because apparently, the basic knowledge that I - and the majority of my friends that I have spoken to about this - had acquired by not being complete morons had somehow managed to escape them. 

Perhaps I should have more sympathy. If you google 'misunderstand mental health' it returns 767000 hits. They range from the most misunderstood mental illnesses to general articles on the misunderstood nature of mental illness. So they are not alone. But I struggle to forgive them even a little bit. I am not the only one - as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of hits - that has suffered as a result of the ignorance. All too many people think depression is something to just be gotten over it; that stress is something that we can always control; that if we are struggling we should just go for a walk. As my therapist detailed in the thoroughly redundant addendum to her letter, mental illness is hugely prevalent amongst university students (unsurprisingly). Universities, therefore, are precisely the entities that should be getting this right. First time round. Without the need for addendums to letters. For bullet-pointed clarifications. My college's response to the request sums up just how wrong my department managed to get it: "Any other outcome [i.e. any outcome other than approval for my request] risks the charge of unfair treatment, with prejudice, in the fact of compelling medical evidence"

I was not sure how to end this post. In better news, my application has since been re-examined and approved by the Degree Committee and I await rubber stamping from Student Registry. I should be restarting my MPhil in October. I would say all is well that ends well but given I will not be the last to suffer as a result of the ignorance, I struggle to be upbeat about this. Something needs to change.