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The Politics of Mental Health

This year marks my 15th year as a professor of political science. Over that time, I’ve witnessed tremendous changes from lectures with overheads and transparencies to interactive Prezis and SMART Boards, from Scantron tests to computer-based exams given to an increasing number of students for whom a #2 pencil seems like a foreign object.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the marked increase in students facing mental health challenges.

Simply put, our students are suffering. Not because they’re not tough enough. Not because they’re entitled. Not because they’re spoiled. Our students are suffering under the weight of a crushing social context that constantly challenges their worth. They are confronted with a collective ignorance toward the scope of mental health conditions and the underfunding of effective resources to address them. They are silenced by political rhetoric quick to attribute acts of violence to the “mentally disturbed” with little regard for the reality that those battling mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime.

Many students battle the increasing uncertainty of whether they and their families can afford their education and how their pursuits may make things more difficult back home. And for a growing number of students, they fear losing their families to threats of permanent separation. Today’s students face the ubiquitous presence of social media and technology that provide a 24-7, 360-degree arena to constantly measure themselves against impossible standards.

These collective stressors often become magnified by civic and political realities.

At a community discussion on the aftermath of the 2016 elections, I listened as a Muslim student recounted her mother pleading that she not wear a hijab on campus out of fear that she would become a visible target for others’ ignorance. I heard the pain in her voice as she calculated how to prioritize safety over her faith.

We watched as another student expressed outrage that her brother, a young gay man living in a conservative town, had been the subject of threats on social media. I left the podium to console an undocumented student pondering whether to drop out and return home to be with her family in case they were deported.

For some, politics is something that only happens in Washington with little consequence. But for many students, particularly students of color, political unrest has a direct impact on how they see themselves, their peers and their futures. Increasingly, that vision is taking an emotional toll with staggering consequences. The challenges may seem even more foreboding due to cultural stigmas surrounding counseling and the heightened tension over issues of inclusion that have permeated campuses such as the University of Missouri, Texas A&M, Yale and my alma mater, the University of Virginia.

According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five students will experience some form of mental health challenge during their college tenure. That number is compounded for students facing stressors such as the impact of college affordability on their families, immigration status, sexual assault and, increasingly, dealing with the tension created by social media. For many students, the inability to effectively cope with these stressors leads to negative behaviors such as drug abuse and self-harm.

Over the last year, I’ve lost two former students to suicide. Both bright, determined, outgoing young men of color. Both reconciling past trauma and current challenges. Both taken away too soon in shocking circumstances. Their lives hold meaning far beyond the circumstances of their deaths. Together, they are a perpetual reminder to all of us to look beyond the well-crafted public veneers to better address what we can do, collectively, to erase the stigma of mental illness.

NAMI reports that suicide is the second-leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10 and 24. Ten. The same age as Ashawnty Davis, who took her life after confronting her bully. As the late Dr. Maya Angelou cautions, “Words are things. You must be careful. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words.”

If you are the parent, grandparent, auntie, village member of a young person in college, make a concerted effort to call and check on them as they navigate the second half of this semester. “Put your eyes” on them. Ask about more than just classes and grades. Ask them what they’re doing beyond the classroom to manage stress and life. Offer to be a listening ear, but recognize your own limitations. Help them to identify campus and local support resources. Consult organizations such as The Steve Fund that work to support students of color. Support your friends who work on college campuses and care for young people.

Stop believing that mental health challenges can just be prayed away. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. It makes you better.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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