Mental Illness & Mental Health Awareness

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.

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