Responding to recent tragedies on university campuses, the National Taiwan University (NTU) Student Association proposed an “accommodated study” system — a mechanism allowing students to apply for specially adapted course requirements and student guidance from specialists — and a university affairs meeting on Saturday last week passed a resolution adopting it.
When students experience mental illness or have serious emotional trouble that affects their studies to the point of keeping them from completing their course requirements, the system would allow them, through an interview and evaluation by specialists, to be granted adapted requirements.
These could include extended deadlines for handing in coursework or the permission to take a break halfway through an exam, thus giving students with mental illness equal study opportunities.
The changes would greatly benefit the students. However, a society that has a poor understanding of mental illness, even stigmatizes it, complicates running such a system effectively without complementary measures.
In clinical situations, we often encounter students with depression whose emotional troubles prevent them from studying as well as their classmates.
Consequently, their professors and classmates look down on them, or regard them as peculiar.
We also encounter students with suicidal ideation who are told to be more strong-willed, but this can hurt students even more by making them feel that they are not strong-willed enough.
In view of this, the NTU Student Association, as well as proposing this “accommodated study” system to the university, could also link up with psychiatric services and specialist organizations such as the Mental Health Association in Taiwan to launch two campus awareness campaigns.
The first campaign would help the campus learn about depression, and its purpose would be to destigmatize it.
The campaign would tell everyone that people who are depressed have an illness in the brain that makes it difficult for them to regulate their emotions, which upsets their ability to cope with stress.
The problem with depressed people is not that they are dissatisfied, weak-willed or do not work hard enough. They need pharmacotherapy, psychological therapy and support from friends and family to make it through the hard time they are experiencing.
The second campaign would help the campus learn how to assist those who are depressed.
It would aim to ensure that every professor and student, having understood the symptoms and the risk factors of mental illness, can learn how to approach depressed people with empathy, caring, support and an attitude that is nonjudgmental, thus creating a study environment that is friendly to depressed students.
The NTU campus has just the right conditions to be the first place in Taiwan to launch these campaigns. If NTU conducts them well, it can encourage other universities, and even high schools, to follow its example.
As well as educating people about mental health, the campaigns would improve students’ ability to empathize. When students enter society able to empathize, their interpersonal relationships — no matter where they end up — would be more harmonious.
Being able to empathize would bring limitless benefits to them, their families and society as a whole.
Lin Jin-jia is an attending psychiatrist at the Chi Mei Medical Center in Tainan.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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