The Invisibility of Mental Illness in Academe: The Politics of Mental Health
The Politics of Mental Health
I hope to inspire the changes necessary for us and our students to learn how to survive, thrive, and excel in spaces that at times make it impossible to take care of ourselves, our bodies, and our minds.
Late work, missing assignments, not showing up to class, and growing apathy towards academics? These could all be typical signs of an “apathetic student” but this can also be warning signs for a student struggling with mental illness. Young people in university classrooms all over America are more anxious and overwhelmed than ever before. A study in 2018 by the American College Health Association reported that two out of every five college students felt so depressed that they had difficulty functioning, and one in five students had attempted suicide. These mental health challenges are not only happening to undergraduate students but are also affecting graduate students. An online global survey of Ph.D. and master’s students published in 2018 adds to the small but growing literature about the high levels of anxiety and depression that graduate students are facing. Based on the study that included 2279 respondents from 234 institutions and 26 countries, 41% of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% showed moderate to severe depression, both these rates being six times higher than the general population.
“The lack of a systematic approach to dealing with mental health has affected the entirety of academe.”
The problem goes even further by affecting faculty. Faculty are burdened by the same mental health stigma and for many professors, their disclosure of any diagnosis is a political one. Dr. Mark Salzer, co-author of Disclosure of Mental Disability by College and University Faculty: The Negotiation of Accommodations, Supports, and Barriers, explains that institutions have understood very well how to accommodate physical disabilities but still remain “completely stumped by psychiatric ones.” The invisibility of mental illness is not just happening for students but travels throughout the educational pipeline directly affecting the professoriate. The lack of a systematic approach to dealing with mental health has affected the entirety of academe.
The invisibility of mental illness in institutions of higher learning only further hides the mental health crises. If professors do not feel comfortable sharing their mental health diagnosis how can we expect students to be open about what they need? The stigma around mental health affects everyone throughout the pipeline, from undergraduate and graduate students to the professoriate. Incoming classes are only going to be facing these mental health dilemmas at higher and more open rates.
“Academe needs to promote a comprehensive, multifaceted, holistic, and preventive approach that includes every sector of the institution.”
According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, the number of students who have had a previous diagnosis or treatment for depression has increased from about 9 percent in 2009 to over 20 percent in 2019. As students become more open about their challenges, the university will have to figure out how to address these challenges. The major realization universities must make is that even though counseling centers play an integral role they can’t be the only office on campus responsible for students’ mental health. Academe needs to promote a comprehensive, multifaceted, holistic, and preventive approach that includes every sector of the university.
Even though this challenge can seem unsurmountable and oversimplified it is a challenge higher education must take on. This challenge is complex which means reimagining the way we understand, accommodate, and support not just students but faculty. Higher education cannot use the excuse that it is impossible to treat them all, it must reconfigure the university. Johns Hopkins University after concerns were brought up by the Student Government Association, the President set out to conduct a thorough review of the factors impacting well-being. The result was the Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-being outlining the scope of the challenges, assessing the risks, and understanding the policies. The report did a comprehensive study on the status of mental health on campus and provided three recommendations.
Academe needs to be able to talk more frankly and openly about everyone’s mental health.
The University of Michigan publishes online advice to the faculty covering about a dozen common student mental health scenarios and how to handle them. It encourages all faculty members to build skills through training programs like QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer. Vanderbilt University’s Graduate School has developed a Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to outline the university’s and students’ roles in the mental health care process. National initiatives such as Mental Health First Aid and National College WellStart Program are percolating university campuses. These initiatives seek to train students, faculty, and staff members to identify signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Academe needs to be able to talk more frankly and openly about everyone’s mental health. These are a few examples of what universities have been able to do and nationwide initiatives that universities can call upon.
This is just the tip of the problem that is burgeoning in higher education. If we are barely able to understand how to support students with anxiety and depression how are we going to ever understand how to support students with more severe mental health illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia? Also, how are we going to address the students with multiple marginalized identities; Students of Color, LGBTQ+ students, low socioeconomic students, or first-generation students who are also facing mental health concerns?
As higher education becomes more diverse, our mission to support students must include students struggling with mental health.*
*This opinion piece was written before COVID-19 spread throughout the United States and the world disrupting higher education. Not only does COVID-19 make it even harder for students to build community, it further isolates students who are dealing with depression and anxiety. I hope that we take serious measures to ensure that mental health becomes a priority for higher education.
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Wedemeyer-Strombel, K. R. (2019, August 27). Why we need to talk more about mental health in graduate school. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Need-to-Talk-More-About/247002Links to an external site.
Wright Dziech, B. (2019, October 8). The costs of overpromising. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/10/08/colleges-have-oversimplified-mental-health-crisis-and-overpromised-when-it-comesLinks to an external site.
Gabriel Rodríguez Lemus, Jr. was born and raised in Fresno, CA. He is a writer, photographer, and most importantly an academic. He is a second-year doctoral student in the Program in Higher Education Leadership at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to attending UT Austin, Gabriel earned his M.S.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from Indiana University Bloomington and his B.A. in Sociology, concentration in Community Change from San José State University. Gabriel’s work engages, complicates, & interrogates the ways LatinX masculinities is understood, specifically for Queer LatinX collegians when navigating academe as it relates to their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, & (dis)ability. He is informed by his own personal experiences with mental illness & mental health as he navigates academia living with Bipolar Disorder Type I.