Mental health awareness week begins next week, so this Ally Tips highlights the prevalence of mental illness and mental health issues in higher education. We also discuss bias around mental health and the ways that we can deconstruct barriers for those with mental illness.
Reflect: How prevalent is stigma against mental illness?
51.9 million (or 1 in 5) people struggled with some form of mental illness in 2019.1 Mental health issues are mediated by social determinants, particularly for those with marginalized identities who experience heightened amounts of mental health issues because of inequality.2,3 Common workplace beliefs about coworkers with mental illness include that they have been hired as a charity case, work worsens their condition, and they are incompetent.4 When people with mental health issues experience discrimination, it can lead to shorter periods of employment, lower rates of disclosure, increased stress, and are less likely to seek employment.5,6 With respect to gender, sexism intersects with mental health stigma to create gendered stereotypes about mental illness, including that women are simply overly emotional.7For women who are dealing with mental illness/health issues, concealing one’s struggles to avoid general stigma is compounded by a desire to avoid reifying gendered stereotypes.
Learn: Mental Health and Mental Illness in Higher Education
In higher education, mental health issues appear early on. Undergraduate women are more likely to report struggles with mental health and mental illness,8 including suicidal ideation,9 that are influenced by sexual violence,10 body image struggles,11 and other issues intersected by sexism12; these struggles effect specific populations (such as undergraduate women athletes13) in unique ways. Graduate students who must adjust to demanding workloads and a competitive culture frequently report multiple symptoms of mental illness/health issues.14 In addition to difficulties with intense academic pressure, roughly 25% of women Ph.D. students experience gender-based harassment from advisors and peers, which strains mental health even further.15 Women faculty’s mental health is impacted by inequities in workload16 (exacerbated by the pandemic) as well as sexual harassment from colleagues17 as well as students.18 The weight of performing under the high standards of higher education (compounded by the weight of systemic sexism) have significant effects on the mental health of women and make success more difficult for those with mental illness.
- Recognize microaggressions: Five major themes crop up in microaggressions targeting people with mental illness: invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and second-class citizenship.19 Educate those who say things like “well, you’re just being crazy,” “stop being spastic,” and “have you taken your meds?” about why these phrases are alienating and negative. Watch for microaggressions that target both a woman’s gender and her mental health, as these can be particularly difficult to deal with. These can be as simple as questioning the emotional capacity of a woman who has been vocal about her own mental illness; such microaggressions indicate that people with mental illness are the problem, rather than high levels of societal isolation and our stigma toward mental illness.
- Revisit Your Policies: Because mental illness falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is legally required that all spaces and services are accessible to people with severe mental illness. Do not question accommodations given to coworkers or students, such as modifications to one’s schedule or work environment. Actively seek out ways to make other policies more accessible, such as how supervision is conducted or policies about missing work/class.
- Break Down Toxic Culture: One of the biggest things that we can do to reduce stigma around mental illness is to be vulnerable. Take time with your colleagues and/or students to earnestly discuss mental health and invite them to do the same (without forcing them). This practice occurred more frequently with the onset of the pandemic, but can be used into the future as other traumatic events in the world occur. Being open and empathetic to mental health will show those around you who may need support that they don’t need to be ashamed.20 Consider how different cultural backgrounds (both internationally as well as within unique domestic communities) also orient us to be more or less open to talking about mental health when starting the conversation.
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book: (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices to Start the Conversation on Mental Health – Kelly Jensen’s edited volume includes essays, comics, and other entries on mental illness and stigma.
- Video: The Two Sides to Mental Health in Academia - Chemist Rita Petracca discusses her journey of becoming a scientist while also dealing with mental health in academia.
- Article: Personal Stories Blog - The National Institute on Mental Health hosts a blog in which personal stories are told about struggles with mental health and mental illness.
- Podcast: Mental: The Podcast to Destigmatise Mental Health - Hosts Bobby Temps and Danielle Hogan explore various mental health issues with firsthand experiences and experts in the field.
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