Student Life

Jaipuriar: Students should be understanding of mental health complexities on campus

Sometimes you just need a break. Taking a mental health leave is a bold decision because it’s essentially putting your college career on hold. However, it can be an important and life-changing option for many students.

Part of mental health reform in higher education includes addressing medical leave of absence policies. Some college students, like Syracuse University sophomore Delaney Arias, have taken time off school for health reasons including severe anxiety and depression. Arias decided to come back to campus after a year-and-a-half long break, which she used to go through counseling and inpatient treatment.

Luckily, SU has a progressive policy regarding mental health absences, so students like Arias are able to come back to school without any major bureaucratic roadblocks. Currently, there is no minimum or maximum time requirement for a leave of absence, according to the Counseling Center’s website, and students are encouraged to seek regular treatment upon returning to school.

In contrast, some institutions, including Duke University and Brown University, mandate a two-semester requirement for an absence, or in some cases, will put you on permanent leave — disenrolling the student entirely.

Despite the obvious disconnect across institutional policies, which need to be more accommodating in the best interest of student health, procedure alone is not enough to dissolve the widespread stigma facing students battling mental health illnesses. Even if the administration and faculty are completely understanding, it’s the campus climate as molded by the student body that determines how well a student reintegrates into college life.

For instance, when a student leaves a university for the sake of their health, the decision is often dramatized and gossiped about. Of course, anything done out of the norm in a group of easily-amused youths is inevitably going to be talked about. However, it is not okay to make someone’s health a subject of controversy.

These reactions prove to be a vicious cycle because this speculation fuels stigma and the stigma fuels the speculation.

At its core, this stigma stems from a lack of awareness regarding mental health, which causes people to lump all types and magnitudes of mental illnesses into a single one-dimensional concept.

Andrew London, a sociology professor and director of graduate studies in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, said that someone once diagnosed as mentally ill will continue to face marginalization, even when they are not exhibiting symptoms.

“Once someone is labeled as mentally ill, that label sticks with them even if their symptoms clear up as a result of treatment or other kinds of intervention,” London said. “The label alone can lead people to behave in stigmatizing ways.”

While mental illnesses are generally seen and treated as medical conditions, as they should be, it should be acknowledged that they also don’t affect everyone the same away.

For example, it is generally understood in medical discussions that if you can take a day off for being physically sick, you should be able to take a day off for being mentally sick. And while this validates mental health conditions, a caveat of this comparison is that unlike most physical conditions, there is no clear-cut remedy that works for all people.

Understanding mental health as more of a spectrum rather than something that can be easily defined may help improve student perceptions and interactions on campus. This is especially important today, when the number of college students seeking counseling for mental health problems is on the rise. At SU specifically, there has been a 66 percent increase in the number of students using the counseling center in the past five years.

Many of the emotions associated with mental health problems are not as extreme or anomalistic as one would think, as shown in an assessment published by the American College Health Association. College student respondents said that anytime within last twelve months of the survey, about 50 percent felt things were hopeless, 82 percent felt exhausted (not from physical activity), 60 percent felt lonely, 35 percent felt so depressed it was difficult to function and 58 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.

Unless they have personal experience, most individuals often view suicide and poor mental standing as just “things that happen to other people.” But anyone can be subject to these grim realities, and it’s student attitudes and approaches to these cases of leave among classmates that have the potential to create a safe and understanding atmosphere that makes will make all the difference.

Being aware of the stressful elements of the college environment, it’s even more crucial that students who take leaves of absence do not have to face the widespread judgment by peers that can affect each facet of their lives, from the social to the academic.

Whether it means seeking counseling or taking a leave of absence from school, it takes courage to accept your mind’s faults and focus on your health. But if students decide to “go public” with the state of their mental health, the campus community should not define them by their diagnoses.

Rashika Jaipuriar is a freshman broadcast and digital journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at rjaipuri@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @rashikajpr.

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