Columns

Friedman ’19: Universities fail on mental health

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 22, 2016

Last month, one of my classmates from middle school passed away. He committed suicide with a kitchen knife after fatally stabbing his mother and brother in their Plano, Texas apartment. His family attributes his “snap” to a prolonged mental illness induced by multiple concussions he sustained while he played basketball for Plano West Senior High School’s varsity team. His funeral was held April 12.

When I read disastrous stories of this magnitude, I feel detached from the people involved, even if I am reading a news post directly from my Facebook feed. So naturally, the experience of reading my classmate’s name, McCann, in the second paragraph of the widely-circulated Fox 4 News story was uniquely jarring for me. McCann’s passing was the second of two student deaths within the month from Plano West Senior High School’s 2015 graduating class — the first being the passing of Calvin, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and my classmate from elementary school, which also occurred under tragic circumstances. I attended Calvin’s funeral in Plano earlier this month.

Though I did not attend Plano West for high school, McCann and Calvin’s passings have had an acute impact on me. They have inspired me to meditate on my own mortality in a way I had not previously. Reconciling my emotional proximity to tragic events of such significance — I played pick-up basketball with McCann’s brother, Josiah, at the local recreation center last summer and sat next to Calvin in the second grade — was a new process for me. Reconciling the divergence between the optimistic realm where we high school graduates have been told that the world is our oyster and the harsh reality in which two of my former friends are now deceased made me upset. I think many of my friends are finding these events similarly difficult to accept.

Given what happened, one of my friends raised the importance of mental health awareness in a recent Facebook post. She wrote: “In light of the upcoming Mental Health Awareness Month and all of the recent tragic events that have occurred in Plano (with my graduating class in particular), it is important to emphasize mental health, check on friends/family and reach out to anyone who may be in a difficult place. I can’t imagine how the families must feel, but I know what it feels like to lose friends, and it can be really scary.”

I appreciate her activism and effort to prevent future deaths under similar circumstances. But in reality, I find that admitting mental health problems, especially those at the level of Calvin or McCann, is far from easy. Admitting vulnerability is stigmatized in contemporary American culture, and in college, the trend of admitting one’s emotional and mental struggles is even more pronounced. College represents a unique phase of life in which individual achievement and independence are emphasized, and self-reliance is tested to its breaking point. This forces us to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, but at the same time forces us to place all of the blame for our shortcomings, which may be externally derived, solely on ourselves. This can lead to self-doubt and depression.

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “one in four students have diagnosable (mental) illnesses,” and yet “40 percent do not seek help.” A similar study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry journal states that “almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year,” but that “college students were significantly less likely to receive past-year treatment for alcohol or drug use disorders than their non-college-attending peers.” Periodic depression in college is the norm, and yet college students treat it as an anomaly.

It seems as though universities themselves treat mental illness as an anomaly as well. According to a 2014 Newsweek article, many universities respond to mental illness by exercising “excessive use of discipline and involuntary leaves of absence” and “(discouragement) of students from asking for the help they need.” Despite claims to the contrary, Brown has similarly failed its students. According to an article published by The Herald in 2010, Brown refused to allow a student readmission after a semester of medical leave because of bipolar disorder. Another student was denied readmission after a year of medical leave because of “miscommunication on the terms of her leave.”

It seems as if admitting mental illness is simply not logical for many students, as university policies make it difficult for diagnosed students to graduate within a reasonable amount of time. Yet ignoring one’s problems, though the predominant practice, can become harmful, even deadly, if left unacknowledged. In many ways, the college environment serves as an amplifier of pre-existing mental illnesses; students can refuse proper treatment by passively ignoring it, and college campuses frequently provide easy access to potentially dangerous outlets, such as alcohol and other drugs. American universities must, in the case of mental illness, abandon the emphasis on individualism so integral to the American college experience, as mental health is not a problem that is so easily remedied, like poor study habits. Mental health is a community problem rather than an individual one. Perhaps if McCann and Calvin had not faced societal pressure to remain silent about their struggles, they would still be alive today. I hope that, over time, universities eventually adopt better policies regarding mental health, and that as students, we are more sincere and accepting of our own personal struggles and those of our peers.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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