Moving from “Take care of yourself” to “How can I help?”

I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was nine years old. Ever since then, I’ve battled to balance it so it doesn’t overwhelm me, to organize it so I can better manage it, and to know enough about myself to predict when it’s going to get bad and take preventative measures. In order to live with it as peacefully as possible, I’ve absorbed it as a part of my personality; there are certain things I do or don’t do specifically because of anxiety, just as there are certain things I do or don’t do because I like the color blue and I don’t like rollerblading. Of course, you could argue that I like blue because it’s calm, and that I do not like rollerblading because the prospect of fast movement makes me anxious—my personality is a network of likes and dislikes, habits and taboos, that are enmeshed in and influenced by my particular mental health condition. Anxiety is a part of who I am. This, at least, is the mindset with which I first entered college a little over a year ago. I was  soon to learn about — and grow skeptical of — the role of Disabilities Services at Swarthmore.

Disabilities Services and the practice of asking students with disabilities to officially document their conditions in order to receive accommodations isn’t badly intended; far from it, under the umbrella of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is designed to protect students’ rights. It’s meant to prevent discrimination against students with disabilities by making sure the school complies with federal standards for providing services to these students. In order to ensure compliance, the administration must document these disabilities; the process is necessarily bureaucratic. But one aspect of bureaucratizing mental health registration is that it marks mental health issues as formal and clinical, conditions that must be processed administratively and secretly, minimizing spaces for informal and open dialogue about those issues in the context of everyday life. It enforces the idea that students must leave their condition in a box in an administrative office, and keep it separate from their academic world.

As I got ready for my first semester at Swarthmore, I didn’t look into documenting my disability to receive accommodations through Disabilities Services. Part of the reason for this is that I’d gone to a very small, independent high school, where I felt as if I could speak to my teachers directly if mental health was an issue that came up, and – in an environment of care and mutual trust – receive an extension for a paper or be able to miss a class to calm myself down. I expected, at a small college like Swarthmore, an environment that was more formal than my high school in its enforcement of deadlines and attendance, but still one of trust and openness. I assumed that my professors would feel as comfortable directly discussing mental health as I was. I didn’t want to register my disability, because I didn’t feel I needed an official nod from the administration to validate my condition. I saw myself as the keeper of my own condition, the only person who knew its contradictions and idiosyncrasies, and the only person who could appropriately convey its significance to my professors, on an as-needed basis.

But when I didn’t register my condition through Disabilities, I was expected, at least academically, to operate as if I didn’t have that condition at all. The school had become the entity that validated (or failed to validate) my mental health concern, and when problems arose that I needed help with, I had no official papers to back up my experience. During my worst week of the semester, when circumstances exacerbated my anxiety to the point where I couldn’t sleep, I jotted an email to my professors, explaining the situation. They were perfectly understanding, and nothing more. They extended deadlines at my request. They told me to take care of myself. They didn’t say anything else, because beyond that, we’re not supposed to talk about it. I didn’t feel that first semester as though there were any adults who cared about me on campus, who wanted to help me out of the quicksand I felt I was sinking in.

Some students don’t feel comfortable talking openly about mental health, and for them, keeping that subject compartmentalized within an administrative service works best; I respect that completely. But I do think that, for students like me, my relationship with my anxiety at Swarthmore would improve in an environment in which professors outside of the administration were available, if asked, to play a role beyond telling us to take care of ourselves. An environment that fostered open dialogue about mental health – where I could drop by a professor’s office hours and, when they asked “How are you?” I could answer “Not great, my [insert mental health condition] has been bad lately” — would be one in which I felt freed of a false distinction between my presented academic self and the self that’s feeling lost and scared on the inside.

My experience is that there are two sides to the coin of a mental health problem. On the one hand, mental health issues are medical issues: they perhaps need to be discussed with doctors, treated, and considered as illnesses that people have, separate from who they are. I think there’s another side of illness, though, that can be viewed as just another aspect of a person, something that is often incredibly difficult to get up and deal with every day, but also something that can be positive, an asset, something to be proud of.

My anxiety gets in the way of my life every day, and forces me to cope with emotions and sensations I never asked for and don’t want — I have the right to register this officially with the college and treat it as the illness it is. But it’s also the reason I can perceive easily if I’m feeling off or unhappy in a situation, a perception that allows me to leave situations I don’t want to be in; it’s the magnifying glass that makes small moments of excitement (going into Philadelphia, trying soup dumplings) thrilling and adventurous, adding a layer of prickly joy to my life that I wouldn’t otherwise experience. It’s part of my personality sometimes, and sometimes I like it that way. This side of the coin must be understood in the complex intersection of personality and condition, that muddy intersection where I like blue and I don’t like rollerblading.

What would Swarthmore look like if students who didn’t want to register their disability officially could discuss it informally with administrators and professors and work out a solution together? If professors moved beyond “Take care of yourself” and instead asked “How can I help?” For me, at least, it would create a much-needed space for that muddy intersection. A school where my professors didn’t separate my academic self from my anxious self would be one in which I felt appreciated and understood, and would seek to appreciate and understand in turn.

 

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