Our Viewpoint: Mental health days are a must

Category:  Opinions
Thursday, April 21st, 2016 at 8:10 AM
Our Viewpoint: Mental health days are a must by The Spectator

One in five people in the United States suffers from a mental illness. According to a study conducted in 2013 by the American Psychological Association (APA), 41 percent of college students suffered from anxiety and 36 percent were suffering from depression.

That’s nearly one out of every three college students.

The APA states the number of students who have been treated for mental illnesses at college campuses has increased significantly in the last 20 years.

A 2014 article from Newsweek describes a former Princeton University student’s struggle with depression. The student got into a fight with his friend and decided to try to overdose on his antidepressants. Immediately realizing what he had done, he went to the campus health center, which then sent him to a hospital where he was monitored for three days.

After he was discharged from the hospital, his mother reportedly received a voicemail from the school saying the student was being kicked out of his dorm room, was forbidden from going to his classes and was not allowed to be on the campus.

Princeton reportedly told the student if he did not voluntarily withdraw from the school, they would kick him out for missing the classes the university forbade him to attend.

Eventually, the student got a lawyer and appealed his case. Princeton denied his appeal, but a year later, he was readmitted into the university.

Unfortunately, this is not the only case where a student with a mental illness has been treated poorly. According to the same Newsweek article, many students with mental illnesses have been kicked out of campus housing and expelled from their universities. With facts such as these and the stigma behind mental illnesses, it’s very difficult to feel comfortable as a college student with a mental illness.

Many students feel scared and embarrassed about something they cannot control, and college attendance policies do not help these feelings subside.

According to the Edinboro University attendance policy, which was signed by President Foster Diebold in 1995, “Students are expected to attend each and every class meeting in its entirety. Faculty members shall maintain a record of classroom attendance. Each student is responsible for verifying his or her attendance when arriving late to class and/or justifying early departure.”

Additionally, “Class absences are excused for medical reasons, university activities approved by the appropriate vice president or designee, and/or for personal exigencies. University activities appropriate to be considered as an excused absence include, but are not limited to: scheduled athletic events, cultural events, academic competitions, etc., in which the student is a participant.

“Other appropriate situations include: military duties, auto accidents, death in immediate family, medical emergencies. Verification of such absences may be required by the instructor, and the student is responsible for make-up work as required by the instructor.”

While medical emergencies appears to be at least a little flexible, neither of these clauses directly mention absences due to mental illness. This begs the question: should colleges allow mental health days for the appropriate students?

Everyone knows that when you have a class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you’re only allowed to have three unexcused absences before your attendance, depending on the professor, starts to become an issue. For Tuesday and Thursday classes, you can only have two unexcused absences.

When students with mental illnesses go over the allotted absences, they start to face the very real possibility that their grades could be affected by their attendance.

But, what if a student can’t help it? More and more stories like the student’s from Princeton University are being publicized, but we rarely hear any good stories about colleges openly accepting and helping students with mental illnesses. How are these negative stories supposed to make students with mental illnesses feel safe and comfortable?

They don’t.

As stated before, nearly one in three college students suffers from anxiety or depression. Many people on Edinboro’s campus suffer, but you might never know because people are afraid of the stigma that surrounds the words “mental illness.” People think you’re crazy or you have a disease: this absolutely isn’t true.

A lot of people understand depression as “feeling sad” or anxiety as “being really nervous.” While these statements are somewhat true, they do not nearly describe the extent to which they affect people.

Being sad is the feeling you have for 10 minutes after your favorite television show ended. Depression is waking up and not being able to get out of bed. Depression is feeling worthless, hopeless, experiencing emptiness or guilt without knowing why. Depression is not being able to sleep for hours on end and lying in bed, staring at the ceiling wondering why you feel so terrible.

Anxiety is not being able to breathe while knowing you’ll have to interact with someone else. Anxiety is when your heart pounds and pounds until you think it’s so loud and fast that everyone around you can hear it beating. Anxiety is when you’re shaking uncontrollably or when you begin tapping your foot, bouncing your leg up and down for no apparent reason.

Both anxiety and depression are lifechanging diseases that can eat away at a person. The following stories are from three Edinboro students who asked to remain anonymous.

The first student was diagnosed with social anxiety when she was 16 years old. She constantly worries about everything, particularly her grades and schoolwork. When she worries a lot, she gets very stressed, which affects her motivation and health.

She has good grades and is set to graduate on time, but finds herself struggling with getting things perfect or where she wants them to be.

“I never think what I will turn in will be good enough,” she said. “And I get overwhelmed easily, so I’ll get a large amount of assignments and freeze. I just shut down for a bit.”

When asked if her professors are understanding, she responded, “I don’t really discuss my mental health with people.”

“When I have in the past, I’ve gotten the typical responses such as ‘everyone gets stressed’ or ‘everyone gets sad sometimes,’” she continued.

“I’m not late on things because I push myself, but I do voice concerns sometimes about the schedule. I feel like if I was more open, they would be understanding. But I don’t like to take advantage of the situation and ask for special privileges.”

The next student said she’s had anxiety before high school, but during her junior year it got much worse.

“The anxiety I get usually happens at night, so in many situations it has caused me to lose a lot of sleep,” she said. “One night I was up until 5:30 in the morning because of how anxious I was, and I had to work the next morning at 10:30.”

She doesn’t believe her anxiety has ever impaired her grades, but she has lost sleep because of it, causing her to not be as sharp in class.

“My professors don’t know that I have anxiety because it’s not as bad now as it was in high school, but that was because I started seeing someone about it who has really helped me,” she said.

“If attendance policies allowed for mental health days, I think they would really help because mental illnesses can be so debilitating for some people.”

She continued, “I know there are some other people who can’t function because of their mental health. I think professors need to be more understanding because they know the stress students are under and they need to understand that not everyone can handle stress well, especially if their mental health isn’t 100 percent.”

The last student struggles with both anxiety and depression. He was officially diagnosed with both after high school, soon after his parents divorced. This greatly affected his mental health, as he began to feel tired all the time, empty and just generally sad and worthless.

He began to see a therapist in 2012 who diagnosed him. In high school, he was able to keep his depression and anxiety relatively under control. However, once he got to college, it got considerably worse.

“In high school, I was very close with a lot of my teachers and they were very supportive because they knew me and my situation,” he said.

“When I came to college, that safe haven was taken away because it seems like you’re really just a number here.”

“I’ve met some great professors here who have really taken the time to get to know me, and I’m truly grateful I have them, “ he continued.

“[But] only one professor knows about my anxiety and depression.”

According to him, she has been very understanding.

He said there have been times this semester where he just couldn’t pull himself out of bed.

“It’s a terrible feeling. You just sit there and your brain tells you to get up and move, but your body just lays there,” he said.

“I have so many things I want to accomplish in my life, but it’s so difficult to tell if I’ll be able to do that because my mental illnesses might hold me back.”

Since beginning college, he has been taking medication for his illnesses, which seems to be helping him.

“My medication generally evens me out. But I still have my good days and my bad days. I just wish people knew what a toll depression and anxiety takes on you,” he said.

“If my professors let us have mental health days, I know it would help me and a lot of people I know out,” he continued.

“However, I also know that people are probably hesitant to implement a new policy because people would take advantage of that. There definitely are ways around that, though, so in the future, I hope we can create more awareness of mental illnesses and the physical and emotional problems they cause.”

— Dakota Palmer

Our Viewpoint is voted on by the staff of The Spectator.

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