Hidden Harper

Harper student sitting alone outside When I entered the university, I was very depressed. I had little support from my family. But, I'd finished high school early, and wanted to attend college. The Dean of Students served as a gatekeeper for non-traditional students. He interviewed me and admitted me on a partial work/study scholarship. Because I had just turned sixteen, he considered me "an experiment". A condition of continued enrollment was that I maintained a 3.5 GPA. If I fell below that standard, the "experiment" would end. It wasn't easy, but to my surprise, being at the university was like a homecoming. Somehow I thrived, despite the challenges. My GPA never fell below 3.85, and within a year I was a straight A student, newly supported on a full academic scholarship. I carried a dual major. I fell in love with learning, and my classes were a source of joy. But, the scholarship covered tuition only and the work study monies went to books and fees. I picked up part-time jobs, but it wasn't enough. What my professors didn't know was that I commuted about two hours a day to campus, sometimes walking a few miles through knee deep snow (the campus was beautiful, heavily wooded and pastoral, and you could access it by bus, but it was a two mile hike from the bus stop to the campus). I had no other transportation. Housing and food were iffy. Sometimes in summer and fall, I would sleep in the branches of the large oak trees in the woods near campus. In winter, I would find unlit corners in the boiler rooms in the basements of the college so I could sleep in the warmth. I was exhausted most of the time and sometimes physically ill, but I figured health issues ultimately didn't matter because I knew in my heart that this was all temporary. While I was doing well academically, I was also struggling with a deep depression and was suicidal. My living situation didn't bother me as much as it would have if I had been psychologically well. I had somehow survived a serious suicide attempt in the recent past. I knew I would eventually run out of energy, and planned to end my life at that point. But, my classes helped me hang on and kept me going. My professors encouraged me, even suggesting I pursue graduate studies. Whenever this was mentioned, my heart would sink at the thought, because I wanted it so much...but I knew I couldn't afford it. My professors knew that I was hard working and sincere in my desire to learn.. But beneath the veneer of the hard working student ...I lived in so much pain.

A myriad of life stories lie hidden beneath the surface of noise and activity of our campus. Sometimes, there's an unexpected clearing, and we become aware of a person's struggles. But, most of the time, the layers of pain are concealed beneath the routine of everyday encounters. Hidden at Harper and unseen on every campus are the psychological narratives of our students, not to mention those of our own, the faculty and staff. To begin our exploration of classroom management and healing perspectives, let's take a look beneath the surface at the experience of distressed students.

Thematic in our personal narratives are our experiences of psychological identity and well-being. When it comes these hidden dynamics in our student body, Harper's campus reflects national trends. These trends speak to the commonality of mental health issues, which are pressing concerns for college students and institutions alike. While psychological disorders can and do occur at any age, the numbers of traditionally aged college students struggling with psychological disorders and distress are compelling. An estimated one in four young adults struggles with a diagnosable psychological condition These conditions and the psychological suffering that comes with them not only have an adverse impact upon the lives and well-beings of our students', but also may potentially compromise their abilities to be successful in and outside of the classroom. Psychological disorders occur with frequency and are commonplace, although every individual experiences these conditions in her or his own unique way. While some students are able to function and academically succeed while struggling with a psychological disorder, others do not, and the assistance and support of the campus community are essential. For all of the students who suffer, however, our college community can become a lifeline, an essential source of support at a time when few other sources may exist for them.

Faculty have asked me which psychological disorders are seen at Harper, and have posed the thoughtful question of what the learning process is like for these students. I can assure you as the Campus Psychologist that every diagnosis and condition seen in adult mental health has been found in our psychologically diverse student body. As for the lived experience of being a student who is actively coping with a disorder, let's briefly look at the academic impact of two of the most prevalent psychological disorders: the mood disorders of depression and anxiety. These conditions can result in symptoms including difficulty concentrating, fatigue, worry, compromises in attention span and memory, hopelessness, anxiety, fear, and panic, irritability, mental anguish, physical pain, mood swings, restlessness, problematic changes to sleeping, eating, and energy. Psychological disorders often co-occur, so students may concomitantly have both anxiety as well as depressive disorders. In addition, suicidal ideation and substance (or poly-substance) use and abuse are conditions that can stand alone or accompany psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. If you are one of the many individuals who has experienced a psychological condition yourself, you can most likely empathize with what it would be like to be a student enrolled at Harper, perhaps sitting in one of your classes, wanting and trying to succeed while also struggling to fight through these kinds of debilitating symptoms. If you have not experienced a psychological condition, imagine yourself for just a few moments trying to deal with a depressive or anxiety disorder while on campus. What parts of our community stand out to you as being supportive and helpful? What stands out to you as being a potential impediment to your success? Consider how your personal identity might be impacted by these experiences.

For contemporary college students, entering college with a prior treatment history is quite common, and this again reflects a national phenomenon, At Harper, many students come to campus having had extensive treatment histories, including hospitalization(s), therapy, and taking psychotropic medications. Some students have gone through substance abuse detox and rehabilitation. Many students on campus currently receive mental health care in the community or through our in-house Psychological Services. Some of these students are known to Access and Disability Services, and receive accommodations and invaluable support from that office. Many students work with the Counseling Faculty located in the Student Development Centers. But, some students choose for a variety of reasons not to receive services on campus, including declining to register to receive accommodations and/or to seek support. There are some compelling reasons why a student might not be ready or willing to seek support. Consider our society and the negative messaging about mental disorder. It's often portrayed and perpetuated through negative stereotypes and myths . For example, a myth that is currently being perpetuated by popular media is the conflation of mental illness with violence despite research demonstrating that the majority of individuals who experience mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a violent act than to perpetuate violence. Negative myths and restrictive labels often deter individuals from seeking mental health treatment, because of the damaging stigma associated with stereotypes. It is a dangerous cycle that alienates and marginalizes people who often already feel alienated and marginalized.