8

The awkward truth about excuse notes

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


 

Alex E. Proimos / Flickr

I met Anna Drake, a University of Waterloo assistant professor, at a 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 a 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.


 

The awkward truth about excuse notes

  1. Then these types get their degrees and get hired…..Problem is that they can not work on their own and do anything unless they are supervised….Why any employer would hire anybody under 35 years of age is beyond me…1 worked in the 80 & 90ies for any employer who would NEVER hire anybody under that age or anybody living at home….SM

    • Well I’m glad some do or else they’d never have hired me. Let’s not make this an ageist issue – there are lazy people of all ages!

      Plus, note that graduate schools in Canada pay the students to attend, and are just as much employers as coffee shops and banks. So of course grad schools hire students under the age of 35, they’re the vast majority of applicants.
      If people under 35 aren’t supposed to have jobs, what do you want them to be doing?

    • That’s called age discrimination and its illegal just like every other type of discrimination. Aside from that, not hiring young people is a dumb strategy because there are plenty of willing and able young workers.

      • Can you discriminate against someone who has poor grades? Poor work record? Criminal record? Hasn’t graduated from high school? If you cannot discriminate, what’s the point of interviewing people for a job? But isn’t picking one and rejecting the rest discrimination? Isn’t discrimination the whole point of interviewing people for a job?

  2. “I met Anna Drake, a University of Waterloo assistant professor, at a
    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 (sic) or doctors saying they’ve been mentally
    unwell or extremely stressed and are in need of extensions or exam
    deferrals.” – This is terrible writing.

  3. Work for self.
    No note needed.

  4. It’s all good until some insurance company raises your rates (or denies your application for insurance) because of a history of mental illness.

Sign in to comment.