Where depressed people are not welcome

Back in 2012, when I was offered a faculty position at Cornell University, friends congratulated me — before hesitantly adding, “Isn’t that where all the suicides are?”

That disappointed me. As someone who has survived thirty years with a major monopole Depression, since my own college days, I’ve been very interested in making this a safer and more compassionate world for young people experiencing mental health challenges.

What I have witnessed during my eight years at the school underscores how far our society is from that goal.

First, an important issue: as far as I know, the suicide rate at Cornell is not higher than other colleges of the same size. Cornell’s popularity in the field can be attributed to the sensational nature of a number of suicides: over the years, many students in despair have jumped down one of the dramatic canyons that line the campus. school, falling more than a hundred meters into the roaring waterfall below. Our media culture considers any such death more credible than a drug overdose in a dorm room, and Cornell’s image has suffered as a result.

In fact, the youth suicide crisis is not local but national. Choose your bleak statistics: suicide is the second leading cause of death among college student; rates have tripled since the 1950s; One study reported that almost one in ten students tried it. Overall, one in four students is diagnosed with a mental illness. Such diseases may be invisible, but they are not uncommon.

The past decade has seen a widespread movement among universities – including Cornell – to expand resources for students in crisis: establish hotlines, shorten time waiting for counseling services, public awareness, etc. Such structural reforms are welcome, but my experience at Cornell suggests that an equally necessary change in public attitudes copper is still elusive.

Here is an example. At Cornell, prospective student applications are reviewed jointly by an admissions counselor and a faculty member like myself. During my assigned semester, I spend a few hours each week sitting in the office of my colleague Jill (name changed) where we sort through a large stack and discuss potential of each candidate. For the most part, we come to the same conclusion, even if she puts more points into the standardized tests than I do.

Then one day we looked at the application of a student whom I will call Reggie. His essay presented honestly and courageously about his struggle with depression, and the progress he had made. I was impressed by his eloquence and insight, and talked a lot with Jill. She agreed, but then said: “Of course, we can’t admit him.”

I was baffled, so she explained that admissions had an informal policy of rejecting any candidate who mentioned depression or other mental illness in their essay. “People with depression create a significant burden for us when it comes to counseling deans – meaning they may experience a post-school crisis and need time-consuming support from Jill,” she explains. and her colleagues. “We’ve discussed this many times in the department, and it’s our policy.” She frankly didn’t want to consider Reggie any more: a diagnosis of depression, in her view, was disqualifying.

This attitude worried me deeply, and I brought my concerns to the chair of my department. He discussed it with the admissions director, who responded with a paragraph justifying the rejection based on Reggie’s academic performance (which Jill and I haven’t even discussed). He denies the existence of any discriminatory policy, but contradicts himself two sentences later: “There are times when disclosing an existing psychological or emotional problem will is a deciding factor.”

My department manager was pleased with that answer, but I found it shocking. Has such a claim ever been made about an applicant with a physical disability, or chronic illness? Depression like Reggie is not a “problem”. It is a well-diagnosed disease, long recognized by the medical community, and protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Reggie’s bravery essay should have been taken as a powerful statement about overcoming adversity, and helping to propel his candidacy; instead, it eliminated him.

Four years after this incident, I find myself slowly receiving the same insensitivity. For the first time in years, I missed a day of teaching – two days in a row – because of my depression. When I emailed my students to explain canceled classes, I made no secret of my diagnosis. As I wrote them, “Mental illness is often whispered, but need not be stigmatized, and we should all acknowledge how widespread it is in our society.”

Among the various responses I received, some were particularly interesting to me. One sophomore wrote to say, “Thank you for being transparent about my situation. Hearing about your plight really puts me at ease, knowing that professors and students alike can all be. going through mental hardships and that’s not something to be ashamed of.” From a senior: “I personally appreciate your honesty and willingness to talk openly about mental health…it has helped me to be more honest with others and with myself about the struggle. my own picture with anxiety.” And one more thing: “Your recent email…helped me deal with my own condition. I just scheduled a session and hope to be back to normal soon!”

A week later, a message came in from the dean, as filtered through my dean: I must not discuss my “personal matters” with students. Acknowledging my depression, the principal felt, could only add to the stress students are feeling during this unusual pandemic year.

If my email increased that stress, then I really regret it. But the messages I receive from students suggest the opposite: speaking openly about my illness is empowering those who are quietly battling their own demons. Depression is not a “personal problem”, as the dean put it; It’s a social challenge that we should face together openly.

Not long after that exchange, my depression hit a severe low, and I took a few months off from work. Several colleagues, students, and colleagues have reached out to compassionate notes; Their support during this perilous period means a lot. Then one day, I received an email from our new division president. It is concise and business. But looking back, I’m startled that his message was missed. How can one write to a colleague of nearly a decade, for the first time since they left for health reasons, and not politely inquire about their well-being? Not even a perfunctory expression “Wishing you a speedy recovery”?

You probably don’t mind if you don’t believe their illness is real.

Today, the phrase “mental health” is often used to refer to a state of well-being – the feeling of being in a good place, managing stress well, fulfilling life. People take “mental health days” to re-center themselves. A teacher may not assign homework as a “mental health respite.” And such.

Of course, it is our nation that was founded to continue the pursuit of happiness, a goal we can all achieve behind. But make no mistake: health is more than simply happiness, and the symptoms of poor mental health – i.e. mental illness – are very different from stressful days in a healthy person’s life. My depressed brain makes me wish the plane I was on would crash…and then feel guilty on behalf of the other passengers. My depressed brain hears the news of someone’s cancer diagnosis, and reacts first with envy. My depressed brain imagined, with relief, my head separating from my body. I have never been afraid of death. Many times in my life, I have coveted it.

If such thoughts drive you crazy, then so be it. Depression is one of the manifestations of insanity, the result of a diseased brain. Fortunately, my madness did not make me a danger to others: like many people with depression, I managed to build a career and family despite the gloom of my brain. My achievements are modest, but some – like tennis stars Naomi Osaka – climb to the top of your career while dealing with the constant challenge of depression. And sadly, 50,000 Americans succumb to the disease each year.

Like any other person with a chronic illness or disability, people with depression deserve the opportunity to participate in the world and enrich the lives of others. They also deserve our compassion and understanding, which begins with trusting them with their diagnosis. No one has to carry a doctor’s note, or share details of their symptoms, in order for co-workers to believe their illness is serious.

I thought about the shortcomings of my department head, and it couldn’t be ignored – because in his new position he will encounter even more colleagues and students who are living with mental illness. . So I wrote a letter in response, explaining as gently as possible my strange feeling when a coworker comes across your life-threatening illness. If I had cancer, I ask, would you write this email the same way? I hope that you will treat any situation in the future, I have said, with equal compassion – regardless of whether the illness is physical or mental.

He didn’t bother to answer. I can only conclude that for my dean, dean, and admissions officers, people with depression don’t deserve compassion and support. They are just people with problems who should leave.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. Where depressed people are not welcome

Caroline Bleakley

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