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My Illness is Not a Choice

Disability & Mental Health

My Illness is Not a Choice

Radix Admin

By Kimberly Neil '17

I have a riddle for you

What forces you to act older than you are, while simultaneously reducing your autonomy to something that parallels a child’s?

(The answer is mental illness.)

More specifically, the answer is one or more of the members of the manic pixie girl triad: depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. Combine this trifecta with the stress culture of a liberal arts college – a culture that values individualism and self-sufficiency – and a larger society that places so much emphasis on being successful, and you have a bit of a problem.

We talk about it, sometimes. Under the shield of anonymity provided by Yik Yak, students can admit that they just couldn’t get out of bed to go to class. Some of us are dealing with anxiety that makes sitting in class too much to handle. Others are so depressed, caught in the line of fire with never-ending work. They may be struggling with always needing to find a way to explain why finishing the class readings is impossible in the moment, or why they need another extension on an assignment.

Yes, college is difficult for everyone. We all pull all-nighters from time to time and rely on caffeine and only a few hours of sleep several times during each semester. Balancing all of your classes, plus orgs, and possibly even a job is a lot. We get by in the present for the possibility of a better future. But how can someone thrive when they’re struggling to survive on a day to day basis?

This is a narrative of what it’s like to have mental illness as a constant in your life.

Mental illness is ongoing, often invisible, inescapable, and frequently misunderstood or ignored. It produces a lot of grey areas on the black and white spectrum of wellness vs. illness. Because that’s the thing about being sick: people expect you to get better. Professors can be lenient, but they expect you to get the work done like everyone else. However, feeling safe enough to be candid about mental illness isn’t accessible for everyone.

In a similar vein, access to professional healthcare that yields a diagnosis is equally inaccessible to many. When students go through the process of applying to college and subsequently trying to pay for their education, there are several expenses that are laid out in financial aid packages. We are clear on the cost of room and board, tuition, student activity fees, etc. The cost of higher education in combination with the cost of healthcare can feel very daunting. Receiving an education in the United States often includes financial hardship. This is especially true when getting a degree feels like a necessity, so seeking treatment for a mental illness feels like a luxury. Even with the option of school affiliated insurance, access to treatment is not always possible.

The Catch 22 here is that mental illness quickly becomes an issue of liability. If a student does not seek – or cannot access – treatment, and they are deemed as a danger to themselves then there is a problem. The line between caring for the individual and worrying about the institution can easily be blurred.

It is so easy to feel like a lack of support is your fault.

This is where the power of self-advocacy comes in. For those who struggle with a mental illness (that does not make it impossible to ask for help), cultivating a support network is possible. A clinical and psychiatric condition comes with inherent responsibility. This responsibility is unique to psychiatric illness – an example is the analogy of telling someone how bad things are, and then having to do extra work to comfort them, even though you are the one who is sick.

A recent issue of The Atlantic (September 2015) included an essay titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” with a description stating: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education – and mental health.” This attitude transcends the discussion around political correctness and trigger warnings on campus and permeates the general administrative and sociocultural attitude towards mental illness on college campuses around the United States. In some ways, Mount Holyoke differs from the average institution because we place so much focus on talking about feelings here. However, the atmosphere on our campus also deviates from the standard American college because it is so deeply rooted in stress culture.

Since I transferred here one year ago, I have seen and felt this college’s condemnation for my perceived lack of personal accountability in my ongoing struggle with an eating disorder and depression. I feel that it is so important to explain that having a mental illness does not equate to asking for unfair, special treatment above my peers. Let’s use previously mentioned trigger warnings in college classrooms as a point of reference: The essay featured in The Atlantic seems to perpetuate the notion that a trigger warning is synonymous to getting out of a certain reading or assignment in order to spare feelings. In reality, a trigger warning is simply a request for an opportunity to prepare for dealing with course material that could potentially cause someone to relive trauma. If provocative, boundary-pushing content is deemed as necessary to prove a point in the classroom, a professor should be equally willing to provide extra support to students who need it.

Asking others, to be conscientious of how difficult living with a mental illness as a student is incredibly similar. This applies in the classroom (often circling back to the primary reason trigger warnings are important) and also applies on a peer to peer level.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 64% of individuals who had previously attended college within a 5 year window of taking the survey dropped out of college for mental health related reasons. Out of this percentage, 45% did not receive accommodations or access mental health service and support while they were still students. This statistic is much higher than students who drop out for more tangible, non-psychiatric illnesses.

What hits close to home here is the idea that Mount Holyoke, specifically, is such a progressive campus. I’m willing to bet that almost every student here has at least one issue or cause that they are authentically passionate about. So why is it so difficult to show compassion to people with invisible, devastating, potentially fatal illnesses?

My theory is that the stress culture of this campus is so competitive that it is sometimes easier to try to one up someone when they say they’re struggling, instead of offering support.

If there is anything that I hope people get out of this article, I hope it is a desire to self-reflect. For those of you reading who are also struggling, have you blamed yourself for absolutely everything? Your sickness is just as real a chronic, physical health condition. Yes, we each make daily choices. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say is this: My illness is not a choice.

Yours isn’t either.

We are socially trained to see suffering as something that manifests with physical symptoms. So, people who do not have the shared experience of mental illness may not understand; and therefore be judgmental of their peers who are living with one. If you cannot see what is destroying someone from the inside out, does that make their pain any less valid?

While not fully understand what a person with an invisible illness is going through does not make someone a bad person, it also does not excuse someone from extending the courtesy of compassion. One simple thing we all can do on this campus is to challenge the need to constantly perpetuate stress Olympics. If a person comes to you and says they are struggling, or if you see that a friend is clearly going through a difficult time, challenge the need within yourself to “one-up” their suffering. For example, if you hear a person say they cannot get out of bed in the morning [because of depression] try to avoid countering their experience by saying how stressed out you are, or how little sleep you’ve gotten lately. If you are not mentally ill, then discrediting the experience of a person with a mental illness in the name of stress culture is unacceptable. This behavior is harmful, and it is invalidating. Instead, be willing to say: I’m always here for you when you need support. I understand what you are going through. Your feelings are valid, and you can get through this.

Having a mental illness does not strip someone of their personhood. A psychiatric diagnosis does not make a person worthy of being dehumanized. I cannot speak for all of the people who are mentally ill in some capacity, but based on my personal experience, I can say that the majority of college students who happen to have one or more diagnosis have not lost their intelligence, drive, or passion. Being mentally ill does not mean someone is no longer worthy of respect. This is particularly salient in the structure of an institution like a liberal arts college. A desire to improve rankings, increase donations and generate revenue should never outweigh the importance of treating each student like a human being.

Mental illness that is difficult to empathize with, or invisible to the eye does not make those experiences and identities any less valid. It does not make a person’s struggle any less brave than someone living daily with any other type of ongoing, life-impacting condition. We might not be able to immediately solve the way mental illness is stigmatized and addressed on a macro-level. We can, however, bring compassion into our experiences on this campus. We all should walk around with the idea that it is not possible to fully know what a person battling mental illness has sacrificed to get to where they are.

Be willing to offer support and understanding.