Opinion | Op-eds

Stigmatizing mental health prevents necessary treatment

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 opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

As a student who suffers from mental illness, this commentary rings true and is very much needed. However, I'm generally wary of discussions of mental illness that assert that physical disabilities are treated as more legitimate--while this may be true in some cases, it is certainly not true in all, and people with physical disabilities also deal with ableism and others' disbelief.

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Christopher Morris_1 posted on

Hear hear Nino! I have test modifications (extended time on test and a word processor-laptop- for notes) because of a learning and several (mostly unseen) physical disabilities.
When a professor announces that they hate laptops in class and therefore they are not allowed; I understand the sentiment but it makes things a little awkward when you have to either
a) pull a laptop out anyway or
b)Just forgo note-taking that day.
And
C) getting questioned by classmates for the rest of the year "Hey, what'd you tell them you had? Awww.. I want that!"
....
Visually impaired service need work too, a student should have to climb a f*n mountain to get an audio files of of required text and books. PDF's should be electronically readable.. Disabilities office is good hear, but overall this has been my experience so Far.
Thanks for your article
Chris

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Faith Rhyne posted on

Hi thanks for your bravery in speaking to this...I was concerned about the title of this article, as it implies that all people diagnosed with a mental illness require treatment - which is my mind is often equated with traditionalist models of medication compliance, pathologizing biological explanations for complex human experiences and struggles, etc. A lot of anti-stigma campaigns I see are along the lines of "it's okay to have a medical disorder of the brain, help is available for your brain disease, please see your doctor." - which was never a helpful message for me in my own experience and which seemed to reinforce some very narrow views of what the causes of and treatments for conditions broadly described as mental illness. I was deeply harmed by medical model psychiatric treatment, not once but for many years and in ways that created many lasting and compounded difficulties for me. I didn't find it helpful. As a peer who works in a recovery education center, and who still has to put forth quite a bit of energy in staying reasonably well and able to function in the ways I have decided are important, I am in no way a person that thinks that people's struggles with thought, feeling, and perception are "myths" or that sometimes we are "wired" in a way that may make us more prone to struggle...however, the sort of "treatment" that often comes to mind in titles such as the one given this essay written in the spirit of advocacy for inclusion and accomodation, is not helpful to me and is well-documented as being harmful to many. If treatment were genuinely recovery-oriented that'd be one thing - but, a lot of times it seems to make matters worse for folks, with disabling side-effects, social isolation, occupational and educational disruptions, etc. Etc. People can get kicked out of school for seeking treatment, for needing help...and then the help they get (being involuntarily committed by a counseling department?) Is not even helpful? Ugh. The problem I have with anti-stigma messaging is that it often reinforces medical model perceptions of mental health struggles, which - in my situation, even as a person who carries a diagnosis of Bipolar 1, Severe, with psychotic features - simply do not speak to why I struggle and what helps me. It took me a long time understand that I do process information differently and that I am vulnerable to stressors other people are not. This doesn't mean that I am just a "quirky thinker" or one of those cliche "think too much" people you referred to. Well, yeah, actually it does...but, it's obviously not so simple as learning how to process information and understand the world as it is understood by the people who, er, "don't think too much" - to not notice the things I notice, or to feel the way I feel. I have been on oodles of different medications - a couple of which ended up being really almost tragically dangerous for me - and the only things that really helped me was finally figuring out how my own brain/mind/heart worked...and coming up with my own understanding of who I am and why I am the way I am. Well, that and a ton of Wise Mind, recovery planning, mindfulness, The Four Agreements, The Icarus Project, Rilke, letter writing, Intentional Peer Support, art, vitamins, sleep...friends. My delusions were actually incredibly helpful to me for a very long time, and still sometimes are. There's nothing quite like believing that the radio is playing me songs to help me out in a big, important thing that I'm a part of, and that the months of utter desolate horribleness and mental patient-ness were just part of something I had to get through. The medications that they gave me to take that away made me want to die. I'd like to see an anti-stigma campaign that says "It's totally okay that you're losing your mind. Lots of people are. It's a crazy world. There are lots of things that can help. You are not alone." Thanks so much for writing your essay. This was my favorite part: "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 give the recognition that we deserve."

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faith rhyne posted on

Sorry for typos in my last comment, a couple of confusing sentences. I wrote all that on my phone. :) This has sparked some really good discussion. Thanks. I sometimes think that people avoid treatment not out of fear of stigma, but out of wariness or disdain for what the anticipated or available treatment might involve.

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