author: marty grande-sherbert | contributor
Before I move on to the main issue of this article, which may sound personal and defeatist, I do have positive things to say. In the past while at the U of R, I have noticed an incredible increase in the amount of emotional support that is available to my fellow students and myself. Advertisements for Mental Wellness Week, Therapy Dogs every Tuesday and Thursday, and signs posted around campus encouraging us to “keep your head up” during finals have made me feel like students are beginning to realize that we need to look out for each other in the face of the stress of school life.
In the past year or two, I have heard a lot of people praise these developments at the U of R as a step forward in regard to the stigma surrounding mental illness. It is certainly not a step backward, as part of increasing awareness is letting people know that their mental health is part of their overall health, and encouraging people to check on their mental health. I certainly have no criticisms of it as a resource for stress relief; however, despite these efforts, I feel that mentally ill people are forgotten. When people say “mental health” at school, they mean “an absence of stress or discomfort.” The amount of stress in my life is a factor in how I can function, but I am not looking to take a break from school issues so I can focus on my emotions. What I am trying to do is have my university understand that my thoughts will affect my ability to have a normal student life. Frankly, being stressed about school and nothing else is a luxury I do not remember.
My wish is that people in universities would understand how much work it is being a student with mental illness.
I get the sense that people think, because my disorder is a disability, that there is special consideration to fix any problems I have in class. As someone with bipolar disorder, I have no idea when I am going to need help from the school. How can a university even help me with problems like being too depressed to get to class, or not being able to concentrate because my thoughts are racing? Settings of desks and timed tests are simply designed for people who do not have disordered thoughts and attention problems, and strict class times and deadlines are designed for people with ordered sleep and predictable productivity.
I often find myself in some kind of struggle over an assignment that if I do not finish on time, I will appear lazy for not completing it; sometimes, deadlines are no problem for me and sometimes they are impossible. Chronic illnesses do not warn you before they flare up, and it is hard to explain to someone how you were fine but suddenly are not without some physical evidence. “Medical documentation,” the certified gold of every class syllabus during an absence, is not easy to get with mental illness. With the state of our mental healthcare system, it is hard to get regular appointments with my psychiatrists. There is always extra effort, and I always notice a huge improvement in my health when school ends because of the time I no longer have to spend pretending to be healthy.
Anyone who knows me in person is aware of how open I am about my mental health. I never want any other person living with mental illness to worry that their struggles are personal failures. To anyone reading this who has felt that their life will never be normal enough for school, remember that school is, in fact, not entirely compatible with your life. You are as much of an academic as anyone without the challenges you face, and while other people may not understand why you cannot always perform at your best, you do not have to criticize yourself.
To professors and students without mental health problems, I hope that you will consider these experiences in your academic careers. Realize that students living with mental illness are not trying to excuse their failures, but trying to explain to you how they can achieve their best. Make us feel safe enough that we can come to our professors about what is really going on without being judged. I am still wishing for a university in which “Mental Wellness” comes with the visibility of those of us who have spent huge parts of our lives struggling to become “well.”