Skip to main content

Campus life isn't what it used to be. In the olden days, when you got stressed out at exam time, you pretty much had to suck it up. A little weed and jelly doughnuts sometimes did the trick. As for deadline extensions, forget it. If your grandma died, Professor McNasty didn't care.

All that has changed. Today, any proper university has registered therapy dogs to cheer you up. If exams have you down, drop in for a lick and a cuddle and you'll feel better in no time. And if you're too depressed because of Grandma, no problem. The disability office will provide you with a private room and extra time to write your final. Your professor never even needs to know.

Today, colleges and universities are highly concerned with the mental well-being of their students. Student distress, we're told, is at an all-time high. It's the pressure. The competition. Social media. Career anxiety. Long commutes. Money worries. Cyberbullying.

Meanwhile, the definition of "disability" – originally used for physical issues – has expanded beyond recognition. Now, it includes not only learning disabilities, but all manner of mental, social and cognitive disorders – anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and the like. These may also require special accommodation. As a consequence, universities now routinely give students extra time to write exams and finish assignments. But not all professors are happy about this. But it's not up to them any more – it's up to the ever-expanding disability bureaucracy.

Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen's University, thinks the accommodation industry has gone too far. Giving someone with mental-health problems extra time to write an exam doesn't level the playing field, he says. It simply tilts the playing field against everybody else. As he wrote recently: "The purpose of exams and assignments is not merely to test knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability but to do so under conditions that require poise, organization, forward planning, and grace under pressure." He says it's like letting someone with a limp start at the 20-metre mark in a 100-metre race. The results are meaningless.

Sadly, Prof. Pardy appears to be on the wrong side of this debate. A recent report prepared by a group of academics – with heavy guidance from disability experts and the Ontario Human Rights Commission – lists even more "functional limitations" that could require accommodation. They include (but are not limited to): memory; concentration; stress management; attention; communication; focus; and executive functioning, including planning, organizing, problem solving, sequencing, time management and judgment – as well as the "ability to effectively manage the demands of academic life." I'm not kidding. Being totally unfit for the demands of academic life is no excuse for a university not to accommodate you.

Universities have become massive therapeutic institutions, where ensuring the social and emotional well-being of the students is Job 1. Any failure of the student is really a failure of the institution. This is essentially what two York University law professors wrote in a recent rebuttal to Prof. Pardy. "Exams and assignments should not be exercises in testing mental health," they argued. "Legal education is not a race." The two authors – Benjamin Berger, professor and associate dean of students, and Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, argue that law schools themselves exacerbate the mental problems that students face. They need to be more inclusive, accessible and fair.

Who knew that law students were suffering so much? Sure, law school is a grind. But the payoff is pretty good. Besides, it seems, anecdotally speaking, that students rarely flunk out these days – the schools see to that. Student satisfaction is important, and the students won't be satisfied if too many of them fail. As for real life – the part where you've got to finish that brief by Monday, no matter how fatigued, disorganized and stressed you are – well, never mind that now. After all, real life is not a race, or a test of mental health, is it?

None of this is to minimize the gravity of serious mental problems, or the anguish they cause. My point is that we are socializing young adults for fragility, not resilience. We're telling them that we don't expect them to endure unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, exam stress and feeling overwhelmed, or unpleasant speech that makes them feel bad, or unpleasant experiences such as failure. We'll send them to the cuddly room to kiss the puppy and make it better.

Geneticist Stephen Scherer says that Canada's medical expertise should be focused on a moonshot to surmount mental health issues. With advances in our understanding of the brain, Scherer says now is the ideal time to stake a claim on the future to help the one-in-five Canadians who will be affected by mental health issues in their lifetimes.