Smart Schools Play Dumb About Mental Health

It’s a few month after the fact, but I just read Newsweek’s February 11 article “How Colleges Flunk Mental Health.”

I guess having been discriminated against by my former employer of 17 years, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that many private colleges are sweeping ADA protections under the rug and actually penalizing students who ask for help with their mental disabilities.

The stories were heartbreaking: students illegally required to turn over treatment and therapy records, forced to withdraw from school, refused re-enrollment even when healthy, and in a few cases, even hospitalized against their will on the school’s say-so.
(One awful story was of a student dealing with the aftermath of a campus rape, asking about a leave of absence. She was not psychotic or suicidal. First they told her she’d lied or made up the rape, and then the staff egged her to answer hypothetical “if you were going to kill yourself” questions … and finally – surprise! – police appeared to escort her to a lock-down ward. I sincerely hope she’s suing their pants off.)

According to the Newsweek article, the schools claim they’re making these decisions because they feel the students are threats.

Okay, I agree that a student exhibiting disturbing symptoms, particularly if fellow students or professors report violent behavior, tendencies or speech (discussing “hypothetical” plans for violence, etc.), that student should be seriously scrutinized. The law backs this up, if there is reason to believe the person might be a threat to others. (There’s a big “BUT” coming up…)

Violence ain’t the issue

The administration isn’t stupid. They know that for every (rare) violently disturbed individual, there are thousands of depressed young adults, going through a hugely stressful change in their lives and extraordinary pressure. That’s not even to mention hundreds more students already living with other disabling mental conditions: anxiety disorders, bulimia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, and more. Statistics show overwhelmingly that persons with mental illness are many times more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one. But although the colleges tout their “wellness centers” and “mental health counselors” many students are actually punished for seeking help, treated like drug-policy violators, bullied by the administration, and/or removed from school.

Imagine how people would react if the colleges treated cancer survivors that way. Or brain-injury survivors, like my sweet and intelligent niece? Or students with diabetes, transplants, dyslexia, or Asperger syndrome… “Oh dear, you’re keeping up fine with school, but your treatment/side-effect/medical issue needs a bit more accommodation and you’re asking for help? Nope! You’re a risk, you’re outta here! Rights? Disability? Nah, we don’t think so…”

Nobody would stand for it.

The Big Bad Nineties

When I was in college in the early nineties, the medical world was only just beginning to understand that children could suffer from mental illnesses. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in late high school, even though my symptoms went all the way back to elementary school. (They’d been brushed off by school counselors. We now understand that unwanted thoughts, suicidal impulses and severe depression appearing at such an early age are often indicators of bipolar disorder.)

Despite that lack of understanding, college mental health care providers did understand that young adults, especially when undergoing stresses of college, could suffer from mental illness, especially depression. My Midwestern college was pretty progressive, and proud to advertise it’s counseling services. However, I was to find that, their focus was getting students to work with the dean to form their own support groups – particularly focused toward eating disorders, international student adjustment issues, and studying. (There were large organizations for feminist and GLBU activities that also provided their own support groups, so at least that was timely.) The waiting room of the health center held STD brochures and a candy dish full of free condoms.

When I finally met with an individual counselor, I tearfully explained my high school diagnosis, my struggles with eating which were returning under college pressure and the stress of working 22 hours a week to pay my own way through school, how betrayed I felt when the school had undermined my scholarship and ended up costing more than they implied when I enrolled, and that I had taken out huge bank loans, and I was always broke, having sleeping problems, concentration problems, mood swings… Not atypical concerns, and I was even kind of proud to be tackling the biggest issues on my own, without parents or anyone paving my way. But I was mostly concerned with how badly my control of my depression was slipping. I was having big black periods, and passive suicidal thoughts (though no plan), and I needed help coping.

It was a very international campus, and I had friends and teachers from all over the world. The counselor was from India, which didn’t seem an issue to me. I, on the other hand, was a white girl in the Midwest, which apparently annoyed her somehow, because her disgusted response was to tell me: my problem was that we Americans are too spoiled and I was too focused on material things like wanting nice clothes and money and to be like all my friends, and that was why I was depressed.

Seriously.

Sign of the times?

I’ll never know if it was reverse-racism, or plain poor listening and ignorance. Needless to say I stopped seeking help at my college. I won’t name names, and I’d like to think they’re not among the current ADA violators running roughshod over the rights of students with mental disabilities. Still, I graduated with very mixed feelings about my alma mater.

I had really hoped that kind of callousness and lack of understanding of mental illnesses I experienced “back then” was a sign of the times. (It’s unfortunate we didn’t know more about mental illness when I was eleven, but I really can’t blame my parents or elementary school counselors for not figuring out I was bipolar, either.) But now? Aren’t we supposed to be more enlightened about mental disabilities?

After reading the Newsweek article, I think in some ways it’s worse. Because they’re not mistreating these students out of ignorance, but because they can.

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