Getting Through College with a Mental Disability
We’ve been talking a lot about how university faculty and staff individually respond to students with disabilities, as well as attitudes from universities as a whole towards identifying students with potential mental health problems. I’ve noticed a lot of stories in the comments on those posts about the struggles individual readers had when navigating the university system, so wanted to share my own story and my perspectives about what made it possible for me to get through and graduate from university despite the onset of my bipolar during my freshman year. I can tell you in two words what made the difference for me: class privilege. I believe that without the money and other associated trappings of upper-middle class status I got from my parents, I would not have finished school and likely would have become homeless and unable to access meaningful mental health care. Which in turn would have certainly resulted in my death by suicide. I think it’s important to look at how and why class made such a significant difference in my experience those years, to identify policies and mechanisms that need to be adapted so that all students, regardless of class status, have the opportunity to finish their educations.
Although I had experienced some relatively mild depression during my senior year of high school, it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I started to experience significant symptoms. I had moved thousands of miles from home to go to school in a city where I had no friends or family. The only person I knew on campus was my high school boyfriend, who I was still dating at the time. Things started going downhill for me: I started staying in bed more often, sometimes for entire days, I stopped going to class, but most often, I thought of death. I had an almost endless range of plans and procedures that I didn’t carry out because all of them seemed to require too much effort. I discovered self-harm, which I thought I’d invented. And I was terrified at how easy it seemed to be to get potential weapons, to cause myself harm.
At that point, I went to the student counseling center. When the day of my appointment finally came, the woman, a master’s student, took out a set of Native American tarot cards. I still remember how shocked I was. I got up and left, demanded a new counselor, and came back a few weeks later for my return appointment – again with a master’s student, who wanted only to talk about my parents. I have some pretty obvious sources of psychological trauma – past sexual assault, then-current psychological abuse from my boyfriend – and my parents are not one of them. At least that student could hear how seriously dangerous my current depression was and gave me some samples of anti-depressants to take. Those pills triggered my undiagnosed mania and sent me into a two-day spin of increasing self-harm and lying to people in the dorm to get ahold of knives or razors or anything with a blade, culminating in a psychotic break when I tried to jump out the 3rd story window of my friend’s dorm room because I knew I could fly and wanted to test it out.
That landed me in the psych unit of the nearby community hospital. The hospitalization g0t my meds straight and got me on a mood stabilizer and got me set up with some tranquilizers for breakthrough hypomania or anxiety, so I was much more stable than I had been on the meds prescribed to me by the university health center. But a week after I was released, my roommate and best friend was hospitalized after a suicide attempt and sitting in the waiting room with her to be admitted triggered me badly enough that a few days later I self-admitted because I was scared of doing myself serious self-harm. And that’s when things went seriously sour with the university.
The university did not want me to return to the dorms after leaving the hospital, ostensibly because my behavior might frighten, upset, or otherwise disturb other dorm residents. The RA had also reported scabs on my arms (from self-harm) as suspected heroin use, so I had to disclose my self-harm to dispell that. (Although I’m not sure which would have been preferable from the university’s standpoint). If I’d been expelled from the dorm system at that point, I would have had to drop out of school as there was absolutely no way I was able to maintain an independent residence. Alternately, I could have couch-surfed.
So my parents threatened to sue the university for discrimination on the basis of mental disability. This required a whole lot of privilege – comfort with the judicial system, awareness of civil rights protections, financial ability to hire an attorney, willingness to disagree with the authority of the university. And although they hired an attorney and paid a fat retainer, the university caved before they actually had to file a suit. They agreed that I could return to the dorm system, but moved me to a new dorm across campus where I knew nobody and my roommate had had a double room to herself and greatly resented my arrival.
After I returned to school, my parents chose to pay for my ongoing mental health care out of pocket so I didn’t have to rely on the student counseling service for treatment. They paid for a private psychiatrist and a therapist who I saw twice a week – at what must have been astronomical cost to them. I know they are still involved in some collections disputes with the hospital, some 15 years after my hospitalization.
That’s a lot of personal story, but I think there are some really important points to examine. First, at no time during any of this was I ever in academic trouble nor did I need or request any academic accommodations (part of my problem was defining myself as someone who did well in school so I didn’t allow myself to waver academically, including being released from the hospital in the morning and taking a final that afternoon). Discussions about accommodating students often (reasonably) focus on academic accommodations, and I think there’s an assumption that any student having significant problems would be identified through the academic context before they needed housing or other accommodations. I am still not aware of how or if the office of students with disabilities would handle this kind of issue or whether they advocate on the student’s behalf. But accommodations in dorm life are just as crucial for students with disabilities as academic accommodations, especially when they live on campus and have no other real alternatives.
I often the housing concerns framed as a concern for other students – being around someone with a significant mental illness might traumatize them. And I agree that finding me dead in a bathroom would have traumatized someone. But my self-harm and my mania did not seem to me to be any more potentially traumatizing for other students than my dormmates who would go to the communal bathroom to throw up after every meal, those who were using hard drugs like cocaine, or even those who would binge drink until passing out naked on the stairway, none of whom ever suffered any potential housing consequences. To say nothing of my then-boyfriend, who was then causing me active and ongoing psychological trauma through his emotional abuse and who got to stay in the dorm with all our mutual friends after I was shipped across campus. That I was the only student looked at by the university and potentially subject to penalties – and identified as potentially problematic because I sought lifesaving and appropriate care – speaks volumes about how students with mental disabilities are seen by administrators.
My second point of contention is the degree to which the university actively contributed to my mental health problems before penalizing me for them. The manic episode which triggered my initial hospitalization was a direct result of the anti-depressants they prescribed for me. And I wouldn’t have been such a disaster and in need of immediate and emergency medication if my treatment hadn’t been delayed by over a month because of the first unhelpful counselor. Despite this, their only proposed solution was to get rid of me entirely – which seems to provide a disincentive for the school to provide effective counseling services. If the school pushes students into crisis, it can then remove them from school and campus. So why try to effectively treat someone?
The final point is the one I started with – it was solely due to my class privilege and the unwavering support of my privileged parents that I was able to fight the university to remain in the dorms and finish school. It was also due to them that I could access meaningful mental health care and treatment that allowed me to keep going in school. And it is stupid as hell that my luck in being born into such privilege was the determining factor in whether I moved forward or dropped out. Unfortunately, until the overall approach of universities towards dealing with students like me is drastically overhauled – to see us not as a threat to other students but a valuable part of the student community, to support us rather than trying to eliminate us out of fear – privilege is going to continue to be one of the most relevant factors.
I’m still thinking about how to best move forward on these issues. I have not done a great job of following up with my own university, primarily because I never want to speak to or be involved with them in any way ever again. But it seems like these issues must affect a sizable number of college students and contribute to the systemic problems that make it more difficult for people with mental disabilities to obtain higher education. I remember my time in college as a terrifying and desperate effort not to get kicked out – surely we can do better for the next generation of students.