story Roshan Singh, Guest Columnist | illustration by Roger Ko

Illness is a tricky subject to talk about, much less write about. However, over the past year, I’ve learned there is a silent body in our community for whom this subject is one of the most pressing issues of their day-to-day life. Some of these individuals, whose conditions range from clinical depression to epilepsy and immune system disorders, have lent their experiences and voices to this article in the hopes that some light may be shed on the struggles of affected students, the options available to them, and what more can be done to support them.

A student struck by illness tends to go through two loosely-defined stages: rest and rehabilitation. The necessity of the rest period, where a student takes a short break from their studies, is well-accounted for logistically: Vice-Rector notes, extended deadlines, dedicated in-school counsellors all work in conjunction to that end. The rehabilitation period that follows once they return to regular work, however, is relatively unaccounted for.

The student coming off a rest period is rarely if ever fully recovered—this is especially so for more severe and chronic conditions. They are immediately tasked with both keeping up and catching up on an accumulated backlog of assignments, putting them in what is essentially an overload situation for an indefinite period.

This can lead to a destructive cycle of students coming off periods of illness falling back into further illness, due to this ever-increasing workload and inability to properly recover. The only alternative, a dangerous road that far too many go down, is to delay the need for that recovery period for as long as possible—not for fear of missing out, but of always being one step behind their peers.

What, then, can a student facing illness do?

A semester off is one option, assuming the student will either have recovered or found some new treatment by the time they return. This is not always the case, however. Underloading allows for more flexibility, but doing so can quickly put one at risk of academic probation, which kicks in at even a two Modular Credit deficit.

Some colleges advise chronically ill students to do so regardless, and make up for their deficit with summer school. This could be another option, but assumes that one can secure places in courses which accommodate their interests and major, and forgo all other summer plans.

The above strategies can be employed by a student facing short-term illness to reasonable success. However, there is still a lack of support for students who deal with chronic illnesses—which persist indefinitely—that must be accounted for in our community, and especially in our formal policies.  

It can begin with simple steps: if you happen to notice a seminar-mate missing from class for multiple sessions, any concrete support offered when they return is of immense value. It is nowhere near as helpful to assume that anyone absent is playing truant, though I understand the difficulty faced by faculty in discerning this at times. Yale University, for instance, has instituted a formalized note-sharing process for known students suffering from chronic illness to precisely this end, and it may be worthwhile looking into similar practices here.

Of course, none of this will matter if our greater school community—faculty, staff and students—cannot learn to understand this concealed struggle of our friends and peers. We place immense value in productivity, and though we would not like to admit it, we face the growing danger of stigmatizing perceived weakness. Most often, enduring the physical effects of illness is the manageable part: the persistent emotional toll constitutes just as real a threat to one’s well-being.

“I was miserable, but no one around me knew a thing. Getting a support system from school wasn’t a choice because there’s a lot of stigma attached to being ill. I want [others] to see me for who I am, which is hard enough to do myself,” said a student speaking to the difficulties of their new diagnosis. This individual was interviewed under the condition on anonymity as they “[don’t] want people to see me as weak, or needing help all the time.”

Furthermore, the gesture of offering your services to someone you know may need them is more complicated than it may first seem. The same individual noted that their close friend “eventually began to approach me as a person who always needed help”, and that this turned them off telling anyone else about their condition altogether. Reflecting on what sort of help would be most appropriate, they concluded, “I think the best way to support sick people isn’t to remind them that they’re sick.”

Before any institutional change can happen—and I believe such change needs to happen—we must first learn what it means to respect the challenges our peers face, both on a physical and emotional level. Once this mindset is there, even the smallest efforts can go a long way towards helping them work towards a happy and well-integrated life in our college.

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