Universities need to teach their professors about mental health practices in the classroom

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The University of Guelph has suspended a professor who students allege insulted one of their classmates who suffers from severe anxiety. Unfortunately, this professor isn’t an anomaly. Rather, this is just one example of a longstanding resistance to accommodating students’ mental health issues in academia. 

According to the university, the professor chastised the student for disrupting the class, asking whether he was actually registered for the course and saying he needed to be controlled. Consequently, the professor, Edward Hedican, has been put on leave.

While an educator’s role should focus on helping to remove the barriers students face in pursuing an education, this act of disregarding a student’s disability in class reinforces them. No one chooses to use their coping mechanisms in order to disrupt class or annoy their professor. This student was trying to learn and participate as best they could and instead of encouraging them, an educator tried to make them feel insecure about their place in the classroom.

In this case, Guelph took the appropriate course of action in suspending the professor. But the real heroes of this situation were the students who spoke out against the mistreatment of their peer. Despite their response, it shouldn’t fall to students to protect each other from mistreatment by professors in class. Sensitivity and accommodation of mental health issues in classes should be at the forefront when training professors to teach. In Hedican’s case, even seasoned professors don’t understand what’s acceptable and what’s not in a modern academic setting. 

This particular situation has gained a lot of media and administrative attention thanks to the large number of witnesses to the event and a video that circulated online. The other side to this story is that many students’ accommodations are still disregarded in more private settings. If this student was treated this way during office hours instead of in a lecture hall, it may very well never have been dealt with. 

The student singled out by Hedican deserves an apology and Guelph and universities as a whole need to make a point of providing training for their educators on why mental health accommodations need to be respected in their classes. Without substantial changes, this kind of mistreatment is going to keep happening.

— Journal Editorial Board

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