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Students work to create chronic illness support group

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Many students on campus struggle with chronic health conditions that can sometimes impede their ability to participate fully on campus, leading some students to take action to improve their situation. Max Weinstein ’19 is working on creating a support group for students with chronic health problems.

On Sept. 19th, Weinstein wrote an op-ed in the Daily Gazette titled “Chronic pain at Swat is real, let’s talk about it.” In the piece, he told his story of attempting to deal with chronic pain on campus, saying “Take a time you have felt ill, perhaps you had the flu or a broken hand. Imagine that it dragged on and on, for weeks and months. Then add in the lifestyle of Swarthmore.” He goes on to tell the story of how he was unable to attend many of his PE classes, and the teacher said he was skipping for reasons not related to his illness. Another professor would not let him switch course sections to attend his doctor appointment, saying that academics come before extra-curricular activities.

These experiences convinced Weinstein to try to change the campus climate when it comes to chronic illness. He, along with Leslie Hempling, the Director of Student Disability Services, held an interest meeting about a possible chronic illness support group on Tuesday, Sept. 27th. Approximately ten people showed up and an additional five told him they were interested.

He thinks the support group will give students an opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggle, provide support to each other, and exchange ideas and strategies for dealing with mental health on campus. The group is still in development, but Weinstein has some ideas for what he would like it to look like. One idea is a weekly CAPS-mediated therapy group, though discussions for implementing this group are still preliminary.“It seems like there was consensus that people were interested in moving this forward and making something sustainable out of this, and I think the reason why people at first wanted to try making it CAPS mediated was just because we’re not familiar with each other enough to make it a student run thing. I think people are still trying to exactly figure out what exactly it is that they’re looking for,” said Weinstein.

Weinstein hopes that the group can help offer students social support and resources to help them navigate their illness in respect to the campus. One student who is interested in the support group is Jinje Dong ’18. He struggles with an undiagnosed chronic health condition and hopes that the support group can provide him with ways of navigating the college’s resources and prevent needless struggles.

In addition to having CAPS support sessions, he would like to see more support in the administration. Currently, chronic illness support is run through Hempling in the Student Disability Service office.  Hempling will work with different departments on campus, including Worth, CAPS, dining services, Deans and others, to help support the student.

“When students work with the Student Disability Service to explore possible ADA accommodations, we try and identify reasonable accommodations that will enable the student to access all of the programs and services of the College while also upholding fundamental academic and program requirements,” said Hempling.

Dong suggested that administration could do more to help with non-life-threatening emergencies. Although his health concerns are not deadly, if symptoms arise in the middle of the night, he would like to have health-care options.

In the long-run Weinstein would like to have a specialized position on campus for students who struggle with chronic illness.  He hasn’t had in-depth conversations about the idea with the administration and or decided what their role would be, but he sees the need for a support system or mentorship role for students with chronic illness.

“Leslie has the accommodation, she’s got the bureaucracy side well taken care of, but I don’t think there’s anyone who fills the role of, I think part of it is someone who can give students practical tips like action oriented advice, helping students communicate with professors who might not have a good ability to relate to being in pain or even other students,” said Weinstein.

In addition to to the support group, Weinstein would like to see more understanding around chronic illness on campus in general. He hopes to bring in speakers to talk about the issue and spread awareness. In his op-ed, he said that “Issues of class, race, and gender are rightfully some of the staples of a Swarthmore dinner conversation. But pain is like a tree that falls and no one hears,” he said. To fix this problem, he hopes the college will provide him with some money to bring speakers in who can describe illness and disability on campus.

Dong agrees that awareness and empathy are often lacking on campus, saying that his situation is often hard to explain to professors, but a better understanding of the issue on campus could help him feel more confident in asking for the help he needs.

Hempling says she is happy that students are working to better their environment and improve the resources available to them.

“I love the idea of a support group as one of many potential resources for students who are coping with chronic illness.  It can be tremendously challenging, isolating, and draining to cope with a chronic illness.  One positive aspect of a group format is that it can provide a safe space where students can get to know one another, gain support, and share ideas and resources,” said Hempling.

Students who are interested in learning more about a support group or getting involved should contact Weinstein.

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