Shattering the stigma: The reality of experiences on campus for the mentally ill

By Katie Bowden

I think it is safe to assume that most—if not all—college students experience a disconnect between an orderly schedule and a disordered mind. Some people seem to cope more easily than others. I have run across a girl who works 70 hours a week and yet still manages to go to school full-time and appear cheerful on 45 minutes of sleep (to be fair, most days she gets two or three hours of sleep). I also know other students who are prone to snap even if they’re in an honor society and have studied well for the short, 10-question test we have in five minutes. It seems to depend on the person.

Sometimes, there are even extra factors at play. I know for a fact that students suffering from bipolar disorder can feel fine (or even great) one minute and then fall to pieces over something minor. I know for a fact that people with symptoms consisting of paranoia and scattered thoughts often find these problems exacerbated around the time they get to college. Medically, this is also known as the time around which schizophrenia begins to unwind from the genes. And then there’s the ever common depression, which has gained more attention now that it has been largely de-stigmatized.

To most, mental illness can seem like the far-fetched problem of “someone else.” It’s a similar case as to when homosexuality was kept under the covers and then exploded across social media with terms like “demi” and “pansexual” in recent years. It’s not there, and then suddenly it’s everywhere. I believe there is a similar case with the increased awareness of mental illness. And I know the facts about mentally ill college students for a reason.

By talking it over with my psychiatrist, psychotherapist and therapist, we re-constructed a timeline based on hindsight: I began experiencing feelings of guilt and worthlessness in the seventh grade, which was pinpointed as the start of my depression and anxiety. I struggled with feelings of persecution from eleventh grade into my first year of college, where I was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (it is easiest, for the sake of familiar terms, to compare this to paranoid schizophrenia, which is in the middle of the schizophrenia spectrum). Not a year after that, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I am not alone in these numbers. The National Alliance on Mental Illness stands behind me: Seventy-five percent of the lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24. Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus. Concern of stigma is the number one reason students do not seek help.

I have heard a number of disparaging comments made concerning those with mental illness, coming from both students and professors alike. I have had more than one professor use the term schizophrenic to describe someone as going back and forth on their stance on an issue (the Greek words schizo and phrene translate to “split mind” but refer to the schizophrenic symptom of fragmented thinking, not symptoms of a multiple or split personality, which that type of comment implies). Depression has been described between classmates of mine as “that crazy…bad stuff.” And these same two girls, ironically, laughed together to the one’s joking question of, “If she has bipolar mania, does that make her a maniac?”

These experiences are not just my own, either. I remember being in class as a first-year with a girl in tears as she explained her Asperger Syndrome. That same year, I had a friend with autism, and she told me of her own first-year experiences in which classmates would snicker at her stutter as she presented. And my best friend, who deals with bipolar and attention defect hyperactivity disorder, among other conditions, believes that her coworkers are passive-aggressively dismissive whenever she shares it.

My experiences–and those of my friends who are dealing with mental illnesses–are not isolated events. There is definitely mental illness on campus, and there is definitely stigma against it. Speaking as a person dealing with mental illness, it is hard for me to believe that what is labeled as ignorance is anything other than stubborn intolerance.

Regardless of the reason, the point of this essay is to educate. The mentally ill are not meant to be made fun of as “maniacs,” condescended to, or treated as lesser people. We are articulate, we are intelligent and we are competent. We have the same potential for outrage at injustice, and we have the same need for acceptance and love. The majority of St. Kate’s students have not been rude or dismissive, and for that I am grateful. But this message is a request to those who have made mental illness jokes or who know of people who do so on a regular basis. It does affect mentally ill students and the cohesiveness of campus overall. Please think before you speak.

Katie can be reached at kobowden@stkate.edu.

2 thoughts on “Shattering the stigma: The reality of experiences on campus for the mentally ill

  1. This is such an important article. I have struggled with my mental health since high school and did not receive any form of treatment until I was in college. Last Spring semester was my roughest, and I was diagnosed with OCD in addition to my previous diagnoses. We can’t just “file a complaint” because so much stigma is ingrained in our culture that it isn’t always perceived as wrong and harmful. For example, while getting my accommodations filled out with disability services, not everything is considered an accommodation. Missing class is still penalized, and I have to say that having panic attacks or being functionally unable to leave your home is penalty enough (not to say work shouldn’t be made up, but many professors have a policy that if you are absent more than twice, you get a failing grade).
    To note insensitivity, there have been times where I was barely surviving, and I have had a professor ask in front of other students why I was still not caught up because it was three days since my absence. I did report it to disability services and while they comforted me and help me out, the professor was never reprimanded.
    I’ve had other professors who have been understanding, luckily. I hope articles like this help everyone in our community understand mental illness better.