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Mental Illness Education on Campus: Breaking Down the Barriers of Stigma

by Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D.

Unquestionably, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about mental illnesses. There are also many efforts under way to improve public understanding of psychiatric disorders. One important target for such efforts is the college campus.

Colleges, first of all, are places where people come to learn and where open-mindedness and inquiry are valued. As such, they are particularly appropriate places for dissemination of knowledge about psychiatric disorders. In addition, college age is a peak time for people to experience mental health problems, including eating disorders, depression, and schizophrenia. Stu-dents, then, need accurate information about the mental health problems that they may encounter in themselves or their peers.

College faculty and staff also need the knowledge to respond to these problems in helpful ways. With improved treatment and a strong recovery movement, more and more people whose education was disrupted by psychiatric disorders are choosing to return to school for college degrees. College campuses need to learn how to understand, accommodate, and support such individuals.

Most colleges have one or more courses dealing with mental illnesses. George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, for example, offers several sections of Abnormal Psychology every semester. Such courses usually provide basic information about the symptoms and causes of psychiatric disorders.

However, I believe that education about mental illnesses needs to go beyond symptoms and causes, and beyond the psychology classroom. It is important, for example, that instruction about mental illnesses includes discussions of the personhood and life experiences of people with psychiatric labels. I select textbooks for my courses that include recognition of the potential negative effects of psychiatric labeling and the social and economic consequences of mental illnesses. I remind students that a psychiatric label does not define the person to whom it is applied, and I discuss the importance of "people-first" language in speaking about mental disorders. In addition, I share with students the findings of my NAMI-sponsored survey of mental health consumers’ experiences of discrimination and stigma, to give students a more specific and detailed idea of what life is like for those with mental disorders. For my graduate course in psychopathology, I assign readings of firsthand accounts of people living with mental illnesses.

I also routinely arrange for people living with mental illnesses to speak to my classes, mindful of research findings that suggest that the most effective method for changing prejudices is contact with members of stigmatized groups. The presentations of these individuals help to disconfirm stereotypes of "wild-eyed madmen" and provide visible evidence that recovery is possible. Providing opportunities for students to interact with people outside of provider/patient roles also helps students see beyond symptoms and disabilities and recognize that people who live with mental illnesses are complex, interesting, and likeable human beings very much like themselves. I expect that such opportunities are far more powerful tools for improving understanding than my most persuasive lectures.

Recently, I have been working with NAMI's In Our Own Voice (IOOV) program to bring speakers to all our Abnormal Psychology classes (about five or six each semester), as well as to classes in health and social work and to our Professional Seminar for doctoral students. Coincidentally, one of my doctoral students is planning dissertation research that will assess the specific impact of these IOOV presentations.

I encourage volunteer experiences that bring students in contact with people with mental illnesses. In particular, I have given students extra credit for becoming volunteers in programs such as Compeer, which matches volunteers to people with mental health problems on a one-to-one friendship basis. I also have provided information about Compeer to my faculty colleagues, and some of them have encouraged Compeer participation in their courses as well. In addition, I have created a Web site for instructors and students that lists agencies, such as Compeer, at which students can volunteer. That Web site (editors note:  the site mentioned in this article is no longer active, but the article remains here for archival purposes) also includes information about self-help organizations, mental health advocacy groups, and recommended readings, including many biographical and autobiographical accounts of mental illnesses. As computers are an important information source for today's youth—and one that can be used in a confidential way—we hope that this Web site will be an easy and attractive way for students to learn more about mental illnesses.

It is not just students, however, who need education about mental illnesses. There are many students who may be experiencing the onset of a mental illness or returning to school after a psychiatric illness. There are likely college employees who experience mental health problems as well. College professors and administrators, however well educated in their fields, may nevertheless know little about mental illnesses and may be uncertain how to deal with the student or colleague who manifests a psychiatric disorder. In addition, colleges often lack the institutional resources necessary to effectively respond to those in their community with mental illnesses. A 1999 study by NAMI-New York State, for example, found that only 50 percent of the colleges they surveyed offered any particular kind of assistance to new students with mental health treatment histories. Furthermore, 80 percent of those colleges indicated a perceived need for additional training and resources for dealing with student mental health problems (NAMI-NYS News, May 2002). Faculty, staff, and administrators need to learn more about mental illnesses and more about how to create an environment that is supportive and responsive to the needs of people with psychiatric disorders.

At GMU, we have begun to address this need for education of the larger campus community. Our first step, initiated by our university's Equity Office, was a panel presentation to our chief administrators. I spoke about the nature of mental illnesses, the likelihood of their being encountered on campus, and the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding to effective response. A lawyer from GMU's Institute for Law and Psychiatry discussed relevant provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ways educational institutions could (and must) respond to the needs of students and employees with psychiatric disorders. Finally, a student living with a mental illness discussed her experiences at the university, her needs related to those experiences, and ideas about what would have been helpful for her at the times her disorder was most disruptive to her academic success. The response to this presentation was very positive, and we hope to make similar presentations to other campus groups of administrators, faculty, and staff.

Education about mental illnesses on college campuses can have significant benefits for all. Students can recognize and seek appropriate help for mental health problems when and if they occur. When they are freed from misconceptions about psychiatric disorders, they can also better help distressed peers and family members. People with mental illnesses who are seeking higher education can find greater success in a supportive and understanding environment that can respond to their needs. Faculty can find relief in knowing how to help students whose feelings, thoughts, and behaviors undermine their academic success. Finally, administrators will be better able to find fair, effective, and legal solutions to the challenges posed by faculty, staff, and students with mental health problems. I look forward to these gains as colleges work to better understand and respond to the many people with mental illnesses who are part of their campus communities.

Otto Wahl is Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he has taught for over 20 years. His work includes numerous research articles and two books about mental illness stigma: Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness and Telling Is Risky Business: Mental Health Consumers Confront Stigma. Dr. Wahl also serves as an advisor to several organizations involved in public education about mental illnesses, including the National Stigma Clearinghouse, the National Mental Health Association, and the new Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma.


Facts about Adolescent Suicide

• Adolescent suicide results in about 2,000 deaths per year.

• Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents ages fifteen to nineteen (Centers for Disease Control, Institute of Medicine, 2002).

• Up to 90 percent of adolescents that commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder (Institute of Medicine, 2002).

• About 2,000,000 adolescents attempt suicide annually, resulting in close to 700,000 emergency room visits (Shaffer, D. J., American Acadamy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2001).

• The two most common suicide risk factors for adolescents are a previous suicide attempt and depression (Shaffer, D., Archives of General Psychiatry, 1996).

• Aside from treatment interventions, other factors that may protect adolescents from suicidal behavior include family connection and support and positive coping skills (National Longi-tudinal Study on Adolescent Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1997).


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