Grace is studying combined psychology and law degrees at The University of Auckland.
We are taught that grades matter in law school, so it is no surprise that we put so much effort and sleepless nights over exams – after all, this is the main method of assessing our intelligence and our prospect of becoming a lawyer. In an ideal world, we would sit our examinations in perfect health and conditions. Alas, this is not yet an ideal world.
At The University of Auckland, we have a system whereby you can apply for an “aegrotat”, or compassionate consideration, if your ability to sit the exam or your preparation for the exam is affected. Generally, you will need evidence from a doctor or a counsellor to prove that you were not faking it to get out of a difficult exam. But just how effective is it at accommodating mental health problems?
The day before his exam, X had a family gathering. X’s mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had an episode during the family gathering. X’s mother proceeds to chase X and his family around with a pair of scissors and threatening injury. X proceeds to call the police and had to watch as his mother was detained and taken away. X sat the exam anyway, despite the fact that he was distressed and experienced a great deal of trauma the night before. X then applied for compassionate consideration, but was declined because he did not immediately see the university counsellor at the day of the exam.
There is another case. C had also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The day of her International Law exam, C experienced panic attack. Understandably, she could not go to her exam and had no choice but to miss it. C went to see her psychologist, and applied for an aegrotat because she missed her law exam. Again, it was declined as she needed to go to the university counsellors and not her own psychologist that she had been seeing for years.
I admit that there are perhaps over thousands of applications for aegrotat every year, and you may say that these two cases are mere outliers. However, I would argue that these cases have merit for compassionate consideration. The problem is that they were declined based on procedural mishaps. Is that truly fair?
It is not fair to impose the same standards for physical and mental health. The nature of mental health problems is not the same as the flu or a broken leg. At times it will be extremely difficult to go directly to a mental health professional, owing to the pervasive and insidious nature of mental health problems. I find it difficult to go to my psychologist at times, so how am I supposed to go to the university psychologist that I have never seen in my life? We have not even developed rapport or a relationship of trust. But that is the requirement imposed on me if I were to apply for academic consideration for my mental health problems.
This is certainly an institutional issue that can and needs to change, especially in law schools with its high prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems. What message is our law school sending if they are not willing to accommodate mental health issues in their academic consideration?