There are few things more upsetting to those of us with mental disorders than hearing a professor rant in a non-related course about the tragic institutionalization of mental health. These professors' most common concern is that society labels those who think differently as diseased. Either that, or people with mental problems are really just funny—one professor described his humorous experience of trying to “hug a paranoid.” I once spent an entire hour pitted against the rest of my class over an assigned reading that made out the mental health industry to be the bastion of capitalistic evil. And it's not just professors who reinforce these ideas: One of my textbooks, when discussing the definition of mental illness, described it as “so-called mental illness.” No mention of mental illness was found in the section of the book dedicated to suicide. So what happens when a student registered with the Office of Disability Services asks one of these professors for an extension? Asking for an extension is the least of my worries.
By disparaging the field of mental health, these professors, in their position of power, taint the notion of getting help for students who might be experiencing mental pain but are reluctant to seek out help, or who don't even know what it is they are going through.
Don't get me wrong, pharmaceutical companies should be scrutinized. The paradigm by which our government runs to support private industry should be challenged. Exploitation needs to be addressed. But it's also important to keep in mind that many disorders rear their ugly heads right around the age when students are in college—three-fourths of all mental illnesses begin (whether diagnosed or not) by age 24, according to an Archives of General Psychiatry study. Most people with mental disorders do not die by suicide. But because, according to the University of Washington, more than 90 percent of those who commit suicide do, in fact, have a diagnosable mental disorder, it's important that these students not be steered away from mental health professionals. These treatments—both medications and therapies—have been shown to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for 70 to 90 percent of individuals diagnosed with mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
It's important to keep in mind that suicide is among the three leading causes of death among people between the ages of 15 and 44 worldwide—and among those of age 15 to 24, suicide accounts for 20 percent of deaths annually, the CDC published in a study. It is also the second-leading cause of death among college-aged students in the United States: According to facts published by the state of Illinois Department of Public Health, an estimated 1,088 college students die by suicide each year. Suicide, it turns out, is not just the voluntary taking of one's own life, but the end result of a disease. Some professors may make offhand remarks about mental illness, but who do they expect those with mental illnesses to turn to if not mental health professionals? Certainly not their families and friends, many of whom who don't recognize their conditions as more than “thinking too much.”
While science has disproved the fiction that mental illness is a failure to think positively, the way our society is organized and responds—or doesn't respond—to mental illness is anachronistic. Our academic institutions are currently not well-suited to handle the realities of those who suffer. Take, for instance, one occasion last spring when I was two days late in submitting a pass/D/fail request to the registrar. My petition was denied even after I revealed I was struggling with two mental disorders at the time, depersonalization disorder and depression. Barnard said my illness was not grounds to grant a late pass/D/fail, and that I should have sought help from the Office of Disability Services, the deans, etc.
Forget that my class dean had told me there was nothing he could do about the decision, that I had already admitted that I was indeed seeing a psychiatrist and signed up with ODS, that I was doing everything in my power to keep up with my readings (which I had to reread at least four times each, or at a snail's pace in order for my weary brain to comprehend), that I was losing touch with friends, family, and reality more and more every day. Alas, I did not have a valid reason for the committee to grant my petition. Had I had a broken leg, that may have been a different story, because physical ailments and diseases rank higher than invisible mental illness on the valid excuse scale.
Universities need to make room for those of us with mental illnesses instead of trying to get us to fit inside their box of valid requirements to be treated with respect. People with mental illness should not be denied their education or be forced to postpone it because of their conditions—institutions need to work harder to accommodate us and make our experiences less difficult than they already are. That means lighter course loads, single-room housing priority, mental health awareness education for professors—whatever else it takes. Those of us enduring mental illness are not regular people who just think differently, or romanticized genius innovators. We are survivors enduring daily struggles to read, talk, shower, eat, think, interact, and be. We're here, and we need to be given the recognition we deserve.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science. She is the photographer for the Humans of Columbia Facebook page, which she runs.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.