Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fear and Mental Illness

In the wake of the horrible Virginia Tech shootings, a number of colleges and universities created mental health task forces designed to determine whether mentally ill students should be allowed to remain on campus and continue their education. As a result, some students have reported that they were asked to leave school after dealing with a mental health issue through school administrators.

There are a whole host of problems with this approach. First, the vast majority of mentally ill students will never go out, purchase a weapon and butcher their classmates and these task forces make it more difficult for that majority to seek effective intervention and treatment. If I had known in college that there was even the slightest chance the administration would kick me out of school for being bipolar, I would have hidden my illness. I would have hesitated to get the help I so desperately needed for fear that the label "bipolar" would be devastating for my future. And feeling like I had to hide my illness would have made me more ashamed of it.

Policies like this that purport to protect the student body by assessing risk actually make students less safe because they discourage the mentally ill from aggressively getting the treatment we need. It's traumatic to realize that you have a mental illness, that it's out of control and that you need outside help to deal with it. For me, while I was enduring the indignities of my mind's sojourn into reckless impulsivity and wide, debilitating mood swings, the consistency of my education was integral to my ability to pick myself up after the storm clouds cleared a bit. I may have been a complete mess, but I still managed to graduate magna cum laude. I went to grad school.

But that's me and perhaps my experience isn't representative. But maybe it is. Maybe the best thing for the mentally ill is not to pull us out of society and send us to some happy fairy camp where we'll magically recover from our illnesses and then allow us to re-enter society when some risk manager has deemed us safe. Maybe the best thing is for us to continue to try to be functioning members of society, to force us to contend with the reality of managing life with a chronic illness.

Where does that leave college administrators? With the realization that all the risk management policies in the world would not stop something like the Virginia Tech shooting from happening again, but they will hurt students who need help.