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Case Study – Sociology and Anxiety / Stress

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Case study about a Sociology student with a psychiatric disability causing panic attacks. She describes how York University in Toronto helped her to continue her studies.

This case study is taken from "Fighting the stigma of psychiatric disability",submitted by the York University Stigma Sub-Committee, published in the York University Gazette April 17 2002  http://www.yorku.ca/ycom/gazette/past/archive/2002/041702/issue.htm (information extracted and accessed July 2007)

Advice from one student with a psychiatric disability: "You don’t have to wait for a crisis to happen to see that there are people and options that can help you."

First-year university was a disaster for sociology student Sandra Smith (not her real name). Away from home, sharing a residence room at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus with someone she didn’t know, she started having panic attacks and feeling overwhelmed. She dropped out, found a job renting videos at Blockbusters and settled into her own apartment. University was out of the question until her boyfriend suggested York.

York seemed more accommodating right from the start. The application explained who to contact if you had a disability. Sandra enrolled in four courses, ready to try again.

All went well until the spring. Spring is always a bad time for Smith and end-of-year academic pressures overwhelmed her so much, the doctor ordered her hospitalized. She phoned Enid Weiner, coordinator of York’s Psychiatric Dis/abilities Program.

"I was worried that I would lose the money I had invested, worried I would lose my courses and be broke. Enid explained all my options. She said, ‘You worry about getting well and I’ll help you finish.’ "She dropped one course, completed two and deferred another. She signed up for a second year.

"Enid kept in touch. If I hadn’t known there was a disability office there and that I could qualify as a disabled student to take fewer courses, I don’t think I would have come back to school at all."

Last year, Smith faced a similar disruption in her school year. Sociology Professor Peter Landstreet suggested an unusual alternative to taking his course. She could review the manuscript of his new text. "It was one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had." She would cover the same material as students in the class and "help him out as well." He was accessible – in person and on the phone – and flexible, giving her an extension when she needed it. In the end, she presented him with a 40-page critique from a student’s point of view, received acknowledgement in his book, framed his letter of thanks and admired the A+ on her transcript.

"After two to three years of struggling and feeling completely incompetent, it was amazing to feel I had finished, accomplished something and that I was respected. He never made me feel bad about my disability. He never asked questions. He let me see professors in a different light as personable, friendly and open. He treated me as an equal. I didn’t have to justify myself, which took so much pressure off. It was great working with him. He was so encouraging." She’s offered to critique two extra chapters he’s working on.

This, her third year, Smith disclosed her disability to professors early in the year in a letter drawn up with help from Weiner. The letter says she has a disability and that she will let the professor know what she needs. She feels a "bit of shame in it. I don’t want to have to use this letter."

"We don’t want to require accommodations. We want to get by as smoothly and as unnoticed as possible." But disclosing "is a bonus," she says. "I let them know I’m there. I have this insurance policy."

"I feel like my life has been on pause for the last few years. Finally I’m getting back in control of things, with concrete goals for a future. I’ve spent a long time thinking I didn’t have a future." She’s aiming for social work in the justice system and maybe, eventually, teaching at a university.

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