Grief-stricken students should not be penalized for struggling
As final exam season approached, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling. I had completely neglected my schoolwork for the third week in a row and thought to myself, “I don’t know how to get through this.”
I work on the community frontlines with street-entrenched populations, and one of my regular clients had experienced a massive overdose. Though I was able to resuscitate them, their prognosis was questionable. Shortly after this episode, my dog would suddenly pass away and my father would be diagnosed with a terminal illness.
In spite of my unfortunate string of events, I needed to go to work to pay for school, and I had to go to school because if I quit I would have to pay back my grants. Inside, I was riddled with heavy grief and bereavement, yet everything around me, including what was expected of me, was business as usual. After talking to students around campus, I came to realize that my story is not unique.
Anyone who has experienced grief and bereavement amidst a sea of deadlines understands how uniquely impossible the situation feels. You weigh your options and decide between quitting or persevering through it all while depressed, producing poor quality work that represents a fraction of your usual capability.
Professors are often accommodating to extraneous circumstances. However, not all professors respond to their students’ crises in a supportive manner, especially since they are not required to grant extensions. The only option for extension, withdrawal, or deferral that a student can assuredly access requires an application for formal academic concession — a process which is not trauma-informed as it subjects students to relive the details of their hardship in depth. At some schools this application requires the student to provide evidentiary documentation, which may include a death certificate in the case of bereavement. This can be triggering and logistically taxing. Worse, even with documentation, academic concession is subject to refusal based on the reviewing bodies’ verdict.
Even when formal or informal accommodations can be made, many students do not have the privilege of actually using them. For out-of-province and international students, taking time off is not always feasible for their visas, finances, or housing. This can leave bereaved students feeling isolated and without options, especially since students who travel to attend school may have few supports in the area, if any.
With little support, students’ mental health is at risk. Research has found that sudden loss is associated with lower academic achievement, poor concentration and retention, less educational enjoyment, feelings of isolation, and the perception that teachers treat students unfairly. The reality is that academic institutions in Canada need to better support their students and improve the way they handle grief and bereavement through policy change and increased access to mental health resources.
To find a way forward it is important to understand that experts have changed the way they view grief. In the western world, mental health disorders are classified using the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). The current version at the time of writing is the DSM-5-TR, and although it has its flaws, it serves as the gold standard tool that physicians and psychologists use for diagnosis.
Two important changes related to grief and bereavement have been implemented in the current version of the DSM. In previous iterations, an individual could not be diagnosed with depression if they recently experienced bereavement. This stipulation has been removed, and it is now understood that bereavement is a risk factor for the development of depressive disorders. Second, a condition called prolonged grief disorder was added, characterized by an intense and prolonged state of grief that has lasted at least a year since the passing of an adult loved one or six months if the deceased was a child or adolescent. A recent study found that university students who have experienced the sudden death of a loved one were at risk of developing this condition, further demonstrating bereaved students’ need for support.
While there has been discourse within the psychological community about the potential harms of pathologizing grief, the formal recognition that grief can lead to significant dysfunction in one’s life was added in response to institutional workplace failures, such as the unjust three-day- off bereavement allowance. Formally recognizing that grief can disrupt mental health and performance offers people protection from being fired, as individuals can now be granted a medical leave without concerns about dismissal, giving them time to heal. If the medical community can recognize this need, why are academic institutions still lagging behind?
In order to gain further insight on the institutional problems that exist I reached out to my former UVic professor and PhD candidate Tucker Farris, who taught SOCI 389: Death and Dying, to get his thoughts.
In his comment, Farris described how universities, including UVic, could better accommodate bereaved students by implementing more accessible learning avenues as they did during the pandemic. “Once we returned to campus we seemed to have forgotten a vast swath of our students who were then again facing inaccessible education.”
He also emphasized how academia fails to recognize the impact grief has on students’ learning. Instead, “it is viewed almost as a personal problem for the students to solve on their own,” Farris says. “This is blatantly wrong because grief is a social burden that impacts every element of a student’s experience in the institution.” In Farris’ own classroom, it was a priority to recognize students’ lives outside of their studies.
Farris’ philosophy is one I wish more professors would adopt as it is clear that more flexible and empathetic policies are needed to support bereaved students. Creating a more trauma-informed approach to academic concession, offering students more financially accessible mental health resources, providing learning accommodations, and screening for bereavement in students are all avenues that could be pursued. Bereaved students need to feel supported by their academic community and improved policies could ease the burden that many student’s experience during their educational journey.