Imagine you are paused a stop sign. You sit, waiting, as cars pile up against you. Suddenly, the road ahead is clear. The drivers behind have their hands on their horns. They have no idea why you aren’t moving. There shouldn’t be anything blocking your path, but you just can’t bring yourself to accelerate.
That’s how Swinburne University student Jason English describes the impact anxiety has on his academic life.
English, 20, has suffered from generalised anxiety disorder for several years, but says that while he was always an anxious person, it was in his final year of high school that the illness truly began to have a “debilitating effect”.
“I think Year 12 is probably the most mentally challenging year for any student, but for someone with anxiety it can consume every part of you… concentration was near impossible. But,” he adds, “you wouldn’t know it, looking at me, would you?”
With a laptop in hand and a backpack brimming with books, English presents as every bit the average university student. There is no one physical attribute that suggests that he may be suffering from illness, no telltale hallmarks. It is this lack of visual indication that he believes may contribute to public misconceptions about anxiety.
“Because people don’t know I have anxiety straight away, I feel like they often question the legitimacy of my illness,” he says. “But myself and so many others are truly suffering.”
The statistics support this. According to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), English is one of 3,225 students who received special consideration in their VCE exams in 2013. Approximately 58 per cent of these students had a “significant health impairment”, the category that anxiety disorders fall under. This is up 42 per cent on 2009.
However, English believes that this number is not representative of the number of people suffering from anxiety during VCE.
“I know that it’s around 15 per cent of people aged 16-24 in Australia that have anxiety today….sure, not all of them do VCE at once, but it seems to me the amount of students receiving special consideration should be a lot higher.”
The Age reported on August 12 that people fear anxiety sufferers might be taking away the opportunity of special consideration from students with disadvantages such as learning difficulties (this argument could not be verified).
English believes this to be “weak theory”. His special consideration allowed him to take breaks when needed, to sit close to an exit, and to have 20 minutes extra writing time if needed. He attributes these benefits to easing the burden of his exams.
“This is why we have to talk about it, spread awareness,” he says, “Even just talking about it can have a huge influence over both your academic studies and your overall quality of life.”
Sophie Holloway, an AccessAbility advisor at Swinburne University, supports this view. She says, “mental illnesses such as anxiety are slowly becoming more accepted than they used to be, although there is still a long road ahead.
“People are becoming more open to asking for help…. this explains the recent increase in special considerations granted… we don’t want anyone, regardless of impairment, to miss out.”
It seems that VCAA agrees. In 2014, it announced a plan to trial a revised process within its special provision policy allowing students to submit applications regarding their long-term conditions before commencing VCE or VCAL. It is hoped that this new structure will prevent the likelihood of any student who qualifies from missing out on the services, and also allow anxiety to be treated as the long-term illness that it is.
“All mental health issues are something worth talking about,” says English. “Anxiety doesn’t discriminate… so neither should we.”