Hiding in Plain Sight: College and the Mentally Ill

Stigma and mental illness

There are students in deep pain and struggling with emotional problems and mental disorders all over college campuses.

Most of us have no clue who they are.

As Kay Redfield Jamison, co-Director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University, recently said to a group of Northwestern University Students:

“No one noticed that I was in any way different,” Jamison said. “I had no idea how I managed to pass as normal in high school, except that other people are generally caught up in their own lives and seldom notice the despair in others if those despairing make an effort to disguise their pain.”

Jamison is not only a leading scholar of mood disorders, she is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She wrote her story of suffering, recovering, and managing her own illness in the book An Unquiet Mind.

If we sense that something is “wrong” in someone’s behavior, the attitude of the “rugged individual” might take over.

If only that person would just be happier, calm down, keep their mouth shut, stop being so impulsive, stop being so rude, or stop being so quiet and awkward. Mental illness is just a phantom problem. It’s really an issue that the individual must resolve on their own. If people would take more responsibility and just act differently, all would be ok.

A few facts:

  • Public rejection of the mentally ill is far more common than not. Socall & Holtgraves (1992) argued that “a mental illness label, regardless of a person’s behavior, can result in public rejection” (p. 441).
  • Stigmas about mental illness seem to be widely endorsed by the general public in the Western world” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002).
  • A CDC report (2012) found that while most adults believe treatment of mental disorders is effective, less believe that people are caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.
  • Coverage of mass shootings and the near immediate link to mental illness do not help public sentiment towards the mentally ill. Rather, in a study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry (McGinty, et. al., 2013), “The stigmatization of people with mental illness may lead to a reluctance to seek treatment or raise other barriers to care” (Barry, 2013).
  • Those with mental illness may internalize public stigma and as a result will be less likely to self-disclose their problems. This is in spite of the growing body of research showing that self-disclosure has positive effects for the mentally ill person and to reduce public stigma (Hyman, 2008).

Disclosing a mental illness is a big risk. If one encounters public stigma about a mental illness the results can damage reputation, employment, friendships, etc. Even if these are not facts, the risk of further alienation is a problem that most of the human race would rather avoid.

For those who aren’t even sure that they have a mental illness but just feel different about the world and their identity, reaching out for help might be compounded by all of these factors. They will go undiagnosed and untreated for illnesses that they have no personal power to manage without help.

When we bring these issues into an environment where often thousands of young adults live, work, and play together it can be a cauldron mixing together a dangerous brew. When we add substance abuse to mental illness the problems worsen. It is then that violence is more likely. More students may bring their drug habits on campuses that started in high school. Add to that fact, 80% of college students will drink and half of those will binge drink.

Students need to feel safe in order to self-disclose that they have either been diagnosed with a mental illness or feel that they might have something wrong. College is a petri dish of social experimentation and dysfunction and mental illness is just not a good fit.

The environment must do a better job of reducing social stigma and giving the mentally ill a safe space. Colleges have made a strong effort to give women and minorities a safe place on campuses, and it is time for them to do the same for those with mental illness if anything is to improve.

Jamison spotlighted Harvard’s improvement in mental health services as an example of the important role universities play in advocating for students.

“I think if (support) does not come from the president’s office, you may as well kiss it goodbye,” Jamison said. “The president’s office has to take this really seriously, and commit money to it, and time.”

___________________________________

Sources:

Barry, C. (2013). Media coverage of mass shootings contributes to negative attitudes towards mental illness. In Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved 10/09/2013, from http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2013/webster_mass_shootings_mental_illness.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Directors, National Institute of Mental Health, The Carter Center Mental Health Program. Attitudes Toward Mental Illness: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Atlanta (GA); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2012.

Corrigan, P., and Watson, A. (2002) Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. February; 1(1): 16–20.

Hyman, I. Self-Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services. HHS Pub. No. (SMA)-08-4337 Rockville, MD. Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008.

Socall, D., and Holtgraves, T. (1992). Attitudes toward the mentally ill: The effects of label and beliefs. The Sociological Quarterly , Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 435-445.

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