Wednesday January 13, 2016

After student's complaint, mental health gets a rethink at York University

PhD student Navi Dhanota filed a complaint against York University in 2013.

PhD student Navi Dhanota filed a complaint against York University in 2013. (Left: Navi Dhanota, Right: Reuters/Mark Blinch)

Listen 6:24

It's now easier for York University students with mental health issues to receive academic accommodations, following a human rights complaint by PhD student Navi Dhanota.

Dhanota filed a complaint with the Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal in 2013, after she went through the academic accommodation process at two Ontario universities.

"The emphasis is no longer about giving labels to people." - Navi Dhanota, York University student

Previously, York students who wanted accommodations — which could mean more time to write a test or a smaller exam room — had to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having a specific mental illness. The student would then have to disclose their diagnosis to the university to receive academic accommodation.

Now, students don't have to disclose the specifics of their illness. Instead, they just need confirmation from a doctor that academic accommodation is required.

"The emphasis is no longer about giving labels to people," Dhanota tells As it Happens host Carol Off. "Now, students are able to keep that private between them and their health care practitioner."

Dhanota first tried to get academic accommodation as an undergraduate student. She was told that she would have to get a diagnosis, or "label," from a psychiatrist in order to be approved.

This process proved stressful for Dhanota, especially when one psychiatrist told her that she could have six different mental illnesses -- including OCD, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

"The sheer number of diagnoses kind of pushed me to seek more help that I otherwise would not have if the accommodation services did not require me to define my experiences in this way," she says. "If I wasn't pushed only to a psychiatrist I would have sought psychotherapy to talk about my problems."

These recent academic accommodation guideline changes only apply to York University. But, Dhanota hopes that other schools across the country will take note.

"I'm confident that other universities will be encouraged to change their policies on this once they see this landmark decision by the commission."