Bell Let’s Talk about mental health discrimination at universities

Bonnie K. Goodman
12 min readJan 19, 2024

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

(Source: Flickr)

“Bell Let’s Talk kicks off a new year of action and change in mental health on January 24.”[1] Bell Canada is gearing up for its annual day meant to destigmatize mental health diagnoses in the country. This year, Bell Let’s Talk will showcase mental health organizations in Canada that offer support and services to Canadians facing mental health challenges, focusing on everyday actions. Bell Let’s Talk Day has grown into a global movement, sparking vital discussions about mental health and driving positive transformation. However, many individuals still need to get support. Among them are university and college students. Students are not only not getting the help they need from their colleges, but the very places that are supposed to be tolerant are the most discriminatory and look to force students out of their colleges. [2]

Students at universities and colleges are facing a mental health crisis; the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. However, no matter how bad the problems students deal with, the more significant and troubling issue is that they are not getting the help and support they need from the universities, faculties, and professors’ departments. More detrimental is when a department or professor uses the situation to discriminate against students. Not only does discrimination make it difficult for students to continue their education, it is an unnecessary source of stress that is more detrimental to their health. Universities claim they promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in education. However, the stigma of mental health still exists, and it makes it much more complicated for students to ask for and seek help.

According to the “Mental Health Commission of Canada, 60% of people with a mental health problem or illness” do not “seek” medical help because they are afraid of stigmas and discrimination.[3] The pandemic created a crisis, especially among college and university students. In 2002, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) published a report finding that three-quarters of students were affected by the pandemic, 74 percent of students’ mental health problems worsened, and 61 percent developed mental health problems. The pandemic made it worse for minority students with a “visible minority, 2SLGBTQ+, Indigenous, living with a disability, or living with a pre-existing mental health concern.” [4]

In 2022, university researchers Fares Qeadan, Erin F Madden, and their colleagues conducted the research entitled “Associations between discrimination and adverse mental health symptoms and disorder diagnoses among college students in the United States.” The researchers find perceived discrimination poses a notable risk to the mental health of college students, especially those from minority backgrounds. A significant percentage of students have reported facing discrimination, which has unfortunately resulted in higher rates of depression and suicide. There was a clear correlation between discrimination and mental health symptoms and diagnoses. This study emphasizes the importance of recognizing the impact of discrimination on healthcare providers. It proposes that addressing bias and discrimination in college settings may positively affect students' mental well-being.[5]

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights saw more discrimination filings in the United States in 2022. However, “nearly half, 890 of the investigations” at colleges and universities were for “disability discrimination.” The OCR reported that most complaints revolve around disability discrimination and colleges and universities “denying accommodation requests.” Many requests revolve around changing course policies, which might be a “fundamental alteration of the course.” Civil Rights law does not require universities to provide course adjustments “that would result in a fundamental alteration of a program or impose an undue burden.” Most cases involved institution-denying accommodations and “programs and services.” [6]

Many of the discrimination cases involve educational technology and online course platforms that are not very forgiving or provide allowances for students with learning disabilities. Inside Higher Ed, in their article, “OCR Complaints Show Pandemic’s Effects,” recounts a case at Florida Gateway Community College, where a student was required to use an online testing platform that accused him of cheating because of his disability. He failed a quiz, the college refused to accommodate him, and he was forced to withdraw for the semester. OCR determined that FGCC failed to “engage in the interactive process to determine reasonable academic adjustments” and “violated federal civil rights laws.” [7]

Recently, students at Yale University who had mental issues were forced to withdraw from the university or take a leave of absence. In November, two current Yale students, Alicia Abramson and Hannah Neves, and “the mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachael filed a lawsuit in Connecticut federal court accusing Yale of “systemic discrimination against students with mental health disabilities.” The plaintiffs accused Yale of “denial of accommodations, unreasonable burdens for seeking reinstatement and punitive consequences for withdrawal.” The plaintiffs were not alone in experiencing forced withdrawals and discrimination over mental health; several alumni came forward but were not part of the lawsuit.[8] The nonprofit Elis for Rachael is named after Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, a Yale student who tragically took her own life in 2021 after sharing her concerns about being “forced to withdraw” from the university. [9]

The lawsuit argues, “The University’s mental health policies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Affordable Care Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and it seeks class-action status from the U.S. District Court of Connecticut.” Without university support, students need to seek outside help and medical care, and those with financial problems cannot get the help they need. Alicia Floyd, an alumnae and an organizer of Elis for Rachael, told the Yale Daily News, “Students have rights, and there are legal means to approach students not having those rights upheld. But there are other things that we’re looking to do. We want it all for students.” The lawsuit is part of larger mental health advocacy as students are experiencing more mental health issues.[10]

A similar case happened with Stanford University; in 2018, there was a class action lawsuit against the university about forced leave of absence for students with mental health issues. Students and the “Stanford Mental Health and Wellness Coalition by the Disability Rights Advocates in San Francisco” filed the lawsuit. The university settled with the plaintiffs a year later and revised their policies. According to the Palo Alto Weekly, The agreement is the “most comprehensive (settlement) ever to protect college students with mental health disabilities from unnecessary exclusion.” [11]

The university would allow students to have decision-making, “revise its involuntary leave of absence policy, ensure sufficient staffing to support students with mental health disabilities, increase training for anyone involved with implementing the policy, pay $495,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees, and “to provide disability-compliant accommodations.” [12] Students would be able to have input as to whether they could continue their studies instead of going on leave, and the Office of Accessible Education would try to accommodate the students so they could continue at the university. The courts monitored Stanford’s policies for two years after the agreement.

Maclean’s Magazine had a similar report about discrimination at universities and colleges in Ontario, Canada. In November 2022, the Magazine published “Inside the Mental Health Crisis at Canadian Universities,” writing, “Students are at increasing risk of mental health problems, and universities are struggling in their efforts to respond.” The reactions at some Canadian universities are appalling and detrimental to their students’ well-being. Instead of helping students experiencing problems, the universities are calling the police, forcing students off campus and into hospitals, although the hospitals never see the situations as emergencies, proving universities are overreacting and stigmatizing. The pandemic caused students to become anxious and depressed from online schooling, social isolation, and financial concerns.

Macleans listed the problems at Canadian universities; “Concerns among post-secondary students across Canada have been fairly consistent: lengthy wait times to see a counsellor, even in crisis situations; inadequate student representation in decision-making related to mental health services; mandated leave policies, which can force an academic leave on students who may potentially self-harm; mandatory sick notes for missed assignments or exams, which place an additional burden on students who are struggling; and overall inaccessible, disparate, opaque, discriminatory and inadequate campus supports.” [13] To solve the problems, students, university faculty, and administrators are creating advisory committees recommending policy solutions. Among the recommendations and improvements are more accessible access to academic accommodations, therapeutic programs to relieve stress, more options, and easier access to counseling.

Courts prefer to side with students with disabilities. In the US, Stanford chose to settle. Still, Canada’s Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled against the University of Waterloo and found they “discriminated against a student applicant on the basis of disability in its decision to refuse admission.” The ruling creates precedence and helps determine “the procedural and substantive aspects of the duty to accommodate.” Rich Longueépée was a “survivor of institutional child abuse and suffered severe physical, psychological, and sexual trauma during his childhood.” He attended Dalhousie University but was undiagnosed and did not receive accommodations, and his grades were low.

The student wanted to transfer to the University of Waterloo, but they refused his application because of his grades and did not factor in other parts of his application. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario sided against the student, not viewing the admissions committee’s grades-based decision as “discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code.” The student took his case to court; the Division Court ruled the university did not accommodate the student and sent it back to the university. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Division Court that the university did not factor in the student’s hardships and his disability might have affected his grades, nor “engaged in an ‘accommodation dialogue.’” According to Filion, “This decision highlights the central importance that human rights play in the provision of services in the education sector.” [14]

The Canadian and American governments protect students from experiencing discrimination regarding mental health since it is considered a disability. Universities have to make sure that they do not violate students’ rights and the law when they deal with students with mental health disabilities. In Canada, there is the Charter of Human Rights; in the United States, there are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that protect students from disability discrimination. One of the most common discrimination is “disciplined or placed” students “on an involuntary leave of absence,” which violates a student’s rights. The law makes an exception only after an “individualized threat assessment” determines that a student poses a “direct threat to the health or safety of others” harm to themselves or other students. [15]

Joel Bates, a graduate student in psychology at King’s College London, wrote an article entitled “Discrimination in Academia,” describing the toxic culture at universities when it comes to mental health and accommodations. Bates has mental health issues, which sometimes lead to him not meeting “academic expectations.” He described how universities discriminate against students, being more concerned that a student’s disability will not affect their studies rather than try to accommodate them. Universities want diagnoses, usually ones that affect day-to-day living, and without them, they do not get help; with them, students can be eligible for help with extensions. Sometimes, the wait times to get a diagnosis take too long to help the students in need.

Bates describes:

“The harmful, and even toxic, cultural issues within academia place exceedingly high standards on productivity… in which students are expected to produce high-quality work while meeting multiple deadlines, becomes harmful for people with mental illness. As a result, ableism is internalized, normalized and becomes ingrained in the culture. Despite being — at least in part — responsible for worsening students’ mental health, universities tend to focus more on what they expect from students (and enforcing the consequences of not meeting those expectations) than on how they can provide students with the right help if mental health issues arise. Furthermore, when students do seek help, this help is often limited and overstretched.”

Bates finds it troubling, especially in a psychology department, that there is no consideration for mental health. For today’s students to succeed, there needs to be accommodations, and that extends to universities. Bates concludes, “Students must fight to stay afloat, fight to get support and fight to get accommodations. Students deserve better… I want to see a future in which anyone with mental illness can receive an education with the support and accommodations they need. We are not a burden, and we deserve to be heard, encouraged and supported.” [16]

The legal system has again proved Bates’s right that students need to be heard, encouraged, and supported. In August 2023, Yale University reached a settlement in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against students with mental health disabilities. Yale’s undergraduate branch has changed its mental health policies to support students better. These changes include allowing part-time study for students with urgent medical needs and making it easier for students on medical leave to return. Most of these changes will be implemented in January, with the remaining changes taking effect by the end of August before the start of the fall semester. According to the settlement, it is not “an admission by either Yale or Plaintiffs as to any claim, cause of action, or issue of law,” despite this, a settlement and the changes prove enough the university was not fair to its students. [17]

According to the terms of the agreement, Yale has modified its medical leave policy, removing a mandatory minimum time off, streamlined reinstatement processes, and granted more campus access to students on medical leave, including “health insurance, campus jobs, class registration, and other elements of student life.” As the settlement indicates and a word of caution for all universities and colleges looking to discriminate against their students, “Yale College will have in place a system to ensure a robust and meaningful exploration of reasonable accommodations, including accommodations to enable a student to meet essential academic requirements and remain safely in school.” [18]

All universities need to help their students as much as possible to remain registered and complete their degrees. We live in a world where more students need different plans for their education because of a disability, a world of exceptions rather than generalizations, and universities need to start standing on the right side of the debate. As much as Bell Let’s Talk tries to end the stigmas to mental health, everyone, including our educational institutions and universities, has a responsibility to help, not hinder, students. Despite these cases advancing the cause, some universities are still backward in how they threaten students on Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 24 and every day of the year. They have to stand up against this discrimination and demand it stop.

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a historian, librarian, journalist, and artist. She has done graduate work in Jewish Education at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Jewish Studies at McGill University. She has a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.” Ms. Goodman has been researching and writing about antisemitism in North American Jewish History, and she has reported on the current antisemitic climate and anti-Zionism on campus for over fifteen years. She is the author of “A Constant Battle: McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and Now anti-Zionism.”

Ms. Goodman is also the author “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish Goal of Whiteness in the South,” among others. She contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature. Her scholarly articles can be found on





[5] Qeadan F, Madden EF, Barbeau WA, Mensah NA, Azagba S, English K. Associations between discrimination and adverse mental health symptoms and disorder diagnoses among college students in the United States. J Affect Disord. 2022 Aug 1;310:249–257. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2022.05.026. Epub 2022 May 11. PMID: 35561881.
















Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a historian, librarian, and journalist. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @