The awkward truth about excuse notes

As more students ask for extensions, profs ask: is this real?

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Joe Houghton/Flickr

Joe Houghton/Flickr

I met Anna Drake, a University of Waterloo assistant professor, at recent event in Toronto and asked: what are professors talking about these days? She said they’re discussing how many students are presenting with notes from counsellors or doctors saying they’ve been mentally unwell or extremely stressed and are in need of extensions or exam deferrals.

Drake, a political scientist, doesn’t recall this being an issue when she was an undergraduate or when she started teaching as a master’s student in 2001. But a few years ago, a professor warned her and other teaching assistants at Queen’s University that, “it seemed to be fairly easy for students to get notes of this kind.” Too easy, perhaps.

Later, teaching her own course at the University of Victoria, she was surprised when four students out of roughly 40 presented with notes near the end of the term asking to defer their semesters.

At Waterloo, where she was hired last July, she’s only had one course deferral, but a handful of students in each class during each term ask for extensions. Drake sometimes suspects these students have faked extreme stress or illness to get out of their work, but she would never accuse.

“It would be a very risky move to tell a student, ‘I think you’re lying,'” she says, “because if you say that it might become this whole horrible issue.” If they’re telling the truth, there could be terrible consequences. And she does not want to stigmatize asking for help, she says. She makes clear that there is real problem with mental health on campus and that many of the claims are legitimate.

Still, the awkward truth is that as more awareness is built around mental health, students may be shifting their strategies for getting out of school by faking extreme stress or anxiety. And how is anyone to know whether a student’s stress is normal or something more pathological?

This week, McGill University published a report on the huge increase in the number of students seeking various types of mental health services on campus: about 20 per cent year over year.

One figure that’s up even more dramatically—57 per cent in a single year—is the number of emergency drop-in visits during final exam months. In December 2011 there were 176. In December 2012 there were 277. Figures aren’t yet calculated for April, but Dr. Robert Franck, McGill’s Mental Health Services Director, says there’s been a comparable increase.

What’s causing the flood of exam-time emergencies? “[Students] are more interested in seeking help when they’re running into trouble and I think that’s great,” says Dr. Franck. “At the same time there are a number of students who think ‘this may be a way for me to defer an exam,'” he adds.

Sometimes Dr. Franck gets the sense that students, “read up the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] on some diagnosis and give you all the classic symptoms,” he says. “Do they get the note? If they’re good enough liars,” he says, “but I think that’s the vast minority.”

Whatever the number of fakers, it comes at a price. In December when the number of emergency drop-ins swelled so too did the waiting list for regular counselling appointments. It grew to four or five weeks long as regular appointments were cut back to deal with the emergencies.

That people who need help might not get it is concerning for Prof. Drake. Still, since each syllabus spells out that there will be no extensions for high workloads, it would be unfair to give some students more time without proof of an illness. She also thinks it’s best to send students to be assessed to make sure that people who are overwhelmed get the help they need, and also in the hopes that others would think twice about going to an overburdened counselling service.

Of course, not every student who wants to delay an exam presents an excuse note. “There are students who can be really clever about avoiding the need to get notes,” says Drake. “[Professors] will say, ‘go to the doctor and get a medical note,’ and they’ll say, ‘I called the doctor, he said you have Norwalk Virus, you’re contagious and you can’t come in.’ There’s nothing a professor can do.”

The truth is, says Drake, “if students want to cheat the system they don’t have to rely on mental health notes to do it.” Still, she says it’s a shame when students use services that others truly need.