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Mental Health

When Expectations Crumble

A mother’s look at her son’s university experience

I.B.*

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 16-17

stock photoWhen going to university is all you’ve ever wanted and it doesn’t work out, it can be devastating. The loss of promise for the future and having to redefine your expectations can seem like the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.

Going to university was something our son Declan* always wanted. His love of academics made it very clear where he wanted to be. Despite developmental and emotional challenges, he graduated from high school in 2005, with a full first-year science scholarship to a local university. His commitment and drive were remarkable.

Early on in his education, Declan was diagnosed with ADHD and he struggled with dysgraphia (writing disability). He was also diagnosed with depression in elementary school, after the death of a young friend. He required ongoing medical monitoring of his ADHD and support with issues of anxiety (which has continued to this day).

His high school education experience was exceptional. The resource team helped him understand himself as a learner. They also provided education for his teachers and resources such as a scribe (i.e., a person who put into writing what he expressed verbally) for assignments and exams. His successes provided a lot of confidence for the future.

The high school resource staff also worked with us and Declan to support his transition to university. They documented the kind of adaptations and scribing supports he would need and clearly communicated this to the campus disability resource centre. My husband and Declan and I introduced ourselves to the centre in August, before school began. The centre recommended that Declan’s scholarship be maintained for his reduced registration (i.e., two courses; normally at least a three-course load is required). We thought we were set.

My husband and I believed that with supports in place and a receptive learning environment, combined with his focus and ability, Declan would achieve his goals. We hoped that his lengthy recovery from depression—well managed by our family doctor—would remain a distant memory.

Initially, at university, Declan revelled in the newness and the pleasure in learning. He truly loved the campus and being part of the bigger picture.

The demands were great, however, and it wasn’t long before Declan became depressed again. He ended up leaving campus life before completing his first semester.

What happened?

Declan suffered immense frustration and a heart-wrenching sense of loss of his educational goals. He’d had a great sense of purpose, of wanting to help people through pursuing the sciences.

The disability resource centre hadn’t been fully receptive to the support requests and information sharing offered by the high school staff. No scribe would be provided for lectures, though scribed notes (taken by a student paid by the disability resource centre) would be provided. For exams, it was up to Declan to register for a scribe.

Declan wasn’t getting as much support as we thought he’d get—and he was overwhelmed. He was used to having solid support and now had to advocate for himself and figure it out as he went. It was a challenge even to get the notes, which had to be picked up from the disability resource centre, and which were not consistently available or always ready on time. While we equipped Declan with voice-activated software on his computer, he hadn’t yet adapted to using it successfully. And our efforts to obtain software programs that would help with course work were thwarted by difficulty connecting with campus staff.

With all that, Declan’s depression returned and his anxiety became intense. He tried hard to ride out the depression himself. He regularly visited a counsellor at the student health care centre, which gave him some grounding. He tried to find other resources on campus to keep him going. He made contact with a students with disabilities activist group, but found it focused more on ways to assist students who needed help in the social and physical world, rather than the academic world. Declan did connect with a group that helped with study skills, but by that time it was too late. His decreased focus, motivation and functioning made meeting school expectations all the harder.

It was clear from Declan’s behaviour at home that he was growing increasingly more despondent. Around mid October, his dad and I tried to advocate for Declan, with his agreement, to address his learning needs and, ultimately, his downward-spiralling mood. We were faced with a lack of insight and empathy from the student disability resource centre, which seemed better geared to those with physical disabilities. It was even suggested that we, rather than being a support system, were “the problem”—we were pushing him to attend university. We also found that the counselling centre was not open to parental involvement.

After a meeting with the mental health counsellors in late fall, Declan decided to step away. He had completed and passed several assignments and an exam, but he was very depressed and clearly not recouping. The health centre and the scholarship office made well-intentioned efforts to ensure that Declan could return to school, if he chose to return. At that point though, he was a long way from being able to choose to return to university.

A parent’s eye view

My husband and I will always remain torn about the whole experience. While it was Declan’s decision to go to university, we worry that maybe we were swept away in ‘proud parent’ enthusiasm.

Perhaps we should have insisted he find more balance—seeking independence through part-time work and part-time school and volunteering. Maybe we should have considered what supports were not in place for him, both emotionally and academically. There were many inherent concerns, given the enormity of the change. One of our bigger misgivings was that he hadn’t yet established strong voice-activated word processing skills.

We really didn’t have a clear plan, though. We wanted to believe that, with his remarkable high school success and purpose, solutions would emerge.

A less challenging environment such as the local community college would, in hindsight, have been the better choice. It’s not what he wanted, but we now know that their smaller classes, more receptive contacts and preparatory programs designed to help students transition to post-secondary school would have been good for Declan. This will be the key to providing the most success for him in the future.

Post-secondary school isn’t for everyone—and, for many, it’s a matter of pursuing it when the time is right. It’s a tough go at best, without the added burdens of a learning disorder and a history of depression. Declan needed more growth, more maturity.

My whole family grieves the losses my son has experienced. But today he is a very different person than he was a year ago, when he left the university. We are seeing more of his original sense of humour, though we know he isn’t going to see himself in quite the same way again. We need to remind him some days how ‘normal’ he really is. At 20, even without depression, life can be complex. Liking himself and learning will be a lifelong process.

Our goal now is to learn how we can support and guide Declan in the future. Good resources must be found, clear questions asked and a realistic plan created.

Returning to university isn’t part of the plan at this time. But Declan is looking at attending a local college for a short course, to establish himself as a student again.

What if . . .

This story is about establishing realistic expectations of change—for parents and prospective students. It also reflects some post-secondary institutions’ limited ability to respond to the unique learning needs and mental health issues of some of their students.

As parents, we’re convinced that the role the campus played in setting the stage could have been very different. Clearly, post-secondary education is a time to learn to stand on one’s own. But, for a student with a disability, like Declan, it would have been good to know there was a champion to help them get established in the post-secondary community. It might not have turned the tide and changed the path that this all took. It might, however, have made him more willing to consider returning to university the next year.

High schools are having increasing successes in bringing unique learners to a remarkable level of learning capacity and performance. The remarkable support we had in high school isn’t ‘real life.’ But, why couldn’t it be?

 
About the author

I.B. is a parent and wife in a great family. She works in health care, volunteers for her kids’ school and revels in BC adventures with her family

*pseudonym

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