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Mental Roocommodations: Mental Health on the Austin College Campus

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“Because of my conditions, I’m never going to be like a normal student,” my roommate tells me about her disability accommodations while microwaving a bowl of spaghetti in our on-campus apartment. A junior psychology major, she has a nervous system disorder and was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I sat down with my roommate during lunch to ask her about her experiences with accommodations for mental health issues. I knew the stigma on mental illness was strong in our society and talking about these issues openly and without shame was one way to combat this problem. Her Emotional Support Animal (ESA), a small dog allowed to live with us by special housing accommodation, yips and whines while we talk, jumping at our pant legs for attention.

My roommate uses testing, class, and housing accommodations. “Testing accommodations just make it more equal,” she says about having time and a half to complete tests and exams, which makes up for the fact that it takes her longer to think of answers she knows due to some biologically loose connections in her brain. She is also allowed to receive recordings of lectures because she is partially hard of hearing and is allowed her ESA on campus to help with her sleeping and overall mood; however, the accommodations do come with a grain of salt. She recalls a teacher who made an announcement to the class that testing accommodations didn’t have to be used for a certain test because it was “small” and “no big deal” while looking directly into her eyes. “She kinda gave me a hard time about it.” She looks down and her cheeks flush hot pink in embarrassment.

The microwave beeps its electronic melody and my roommate takes the steaming pasta out to stir while we talk about the mental illness stigma on campus. She worries about professors like this, when she thinks about the stigma on mental illness and other disorders. “I have a really understanding professor who has really been there for me, but other faculty view the accommodations as a hassle.” She then makes a humorous mix up of her idioms saying, “Mental health is like the black step sister of the world, or whatever.” She rolls her eyes.

In response to how she found out about accommodations, she mentioned the form new students get during the summer, asking them to list accommodations they might need. “I didn’t really know what I could get so I went and talked to Laura, who kinda laid it out for me,” she adds, speaking of Laura Ramsey, the Director of Academic Skills Center (ASC) who oversees all accommodation requests. “I didn’t even know I qualified for testing accommodations because I didn’t have that in high school.”

This feeling of not knowing what is available is pretty pervasive throughout the campus. Austin College doesn’t advertise the different types of accommodations offered or what types of disabilities qualify. Every class states at the beginning of each semester you can use disability accommodations, but if you’ve never used them or sought out more information you’d never know you qualify. My roommate says if she hadn’t sought out a meeting with Laura Ramsey, she probably wouldn’t have any accommodations right now. In her freshman year, before school even started, she went to see the AC nurse to discuss her nervous system disorder and what she could expect from the health center. According to my roommate, accommodations weren’t even mentioned, much less was she given a referral to the ASC.

She mentioned there is no advocacy for mental health on campus and we realized there isn’t any group or organization which stands for the cause. Yes, the ASC and Adams Center counseling services are there to help students, but no one can use them if they don’t know they exist. My roommate said she thought there should be a panel for new students during orientation that goes over the different accommodations and disabilities the ASC works with as well as makes sure all the students know there is free counseling at the Adams Center. “I knew that counseling was offered, but I didn’t know it was free. I thought they charged your insurance. I didn’t end up starting sessions there until a professor actually dragged me in and made me start doing paper work.”

The Emotional Support Animal accommodation comes from the idea pets can have an array of mental and physical health benefits. If keeping a dog in on-campus housing will allow a student to better access the quality of life other students have, then, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, this is a reasonable accommodation. Some disorders ESAs help with are depression, PTSD, anxiety, personality disorders, and many more mental and physical impairments. For example, living with a small dog can help someone with depression get up in the morning, since taking care of someone else is a greater motivator than just taking care of oneself. The dog’s presence and touch can lower heart rates during panic attacks or anxiety. The dog’s day to day maintenance and up-keep remind the owner to do self-maintenance and up-keep, such as brushing teeth and eating lunch – things people struggling with depression often go without when the idea of living weighs too heavily on them. ESAs, which can be any type of household pet, help with a myriad of other symptoms as well. What distinguishes them from Service Animals is service animals are specifically trained to do things like open doors, alert authorities when something goes wrong, and predict epileptic seizures. ESAs are not trained outside of regular pet training and behave just like pets.

I found out about the possibility of having an ESA on campus from a friend of mine at my old school, who suffers from depression and severe anxiety. Since I already knew about it, I sought out the appropriate forms and ways to make it a reality. I was curious about whether my roommate had a different experience.

“No. I didn’t know who to even talk to about that and I kinda had to make it happen by myself.” My roommate says she knew about ESAs from outside of school. She was never told by a faculty or staff member it was a possibility even though she was working with the ASC and disability accommodations for over a year when she finally started the process. “They don’t really make the process very easy and they don’t help you with it. You have to do it on your own.”

The procedure to get an ESA on campus is to take a form from the website or ASC and get it filled out by a mental health professional – your family physician won’t be sufficient. The form asks for your diagnosis, length of care, length of treatment with this mental health professional specifically, the current symptoms and their severity, the other treatments attempted, medication you’re currently on, and what specifically having an ESA will accomplish for you.

The problems with this form are many. First of all, there are laws which prohibit organizations from asking too much personal information about your disability. The Fair Housing Act says that housing agencies (in this case Residence Life in conjunction with the ASC), “may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments” (FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01).  They only need documentation from a physician or mental health professional that the individual has a disability (not necessarily releasing what specific diagnosis they may have) and that housing accommodations such as an ESA would alleviate one or more of the symptoms they experience (again, not necessarily having to list out those symptoms). You are protected from having to disclose your specific diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment history. This is a particularly important protection for those with mental illnesses because of the nature of and stigma on mental disorders. Disclosing this information may be detrimental to the recovery and treatment of their disorder – a series of probing questions can trigger episodes, cause undue stress, and create an unsafe environment for those with mental disorders, i.e. open them up to ridicule from peers and superiors.

My roommate is very passionate about her disdain for the process of getting an ESA. She says she was getting her dog on campus to help with the symptoms of a physical disorder, her nervous system illness, and didn’t even have a mental health professional she was seeing.

“I think it’s ridiculous that you have to have a psychiatrist to have an ESA. You don’t have to have a psychiatric illness to have an ESA.” She went on to clarify she didn’t just mean physical disorders. “You could just have regular anxiety that doesn’t require a mental health professional to help, if you can do it on your own with an ESA.”

This was especially important to her because she went for years not seeking treatment for her bipolar disorder because she didn’t want to be labeled mentally ill. She didn’t want the stigma to follow her around. Many people feel this way when they first realize they have symptoms of a mental illness. They want to believe they can do it on their own and that nothing is really wrong. We are not going to be able to reduce stigma, in a short time, to the point where these individuals feel comfortable and safe seeking professional help. So in the meantime, we shouldn’t bar them from getting self-help in the form of an ESA, my roommate says.

She also finally admitted, getting quiet and sheepish – her spaghetti fork laying untouched as she leaned in – that the ESA form questions weighed on her during the process. “My doctor had to fill out some pretty personal information on my paper work. Why do you need to know my diagnosis? If I have a need for something I need it. It’s kind of embarrassing that I’m bipolar. It is something new that I’m dealing with.” She didn’t want to have to talk to Laura Ramsey and Michael Deen, the director of Residence Life and the SEED office, as well as another doctor about this new diagnosis she was still coming to terms with.

I decided to sit down with Laura Ramsey, director of the Academic Skills Center, and get some information about the services offered at AC. I walked into her messy but quaint office where a small love seat donned a pillow and blanket that looked recently vacated by a small child. Laura moved her daughter’s homework off the small table so we could sit around it. Every few seconds her email would go off with a chirp behind us. She didn’t seem to notice.

She let me know in the 2015-2016 school year 87 students used disability accommodations and of those, 27 of them were for mental disorders. These numbers shocked me. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 25% of college students report having mental illness – and that’s just those who report it. 27 out of Austin College’s 1300 students is only 2.08%. This means it is possible that nearly 22% of Austin College students, whether knowingly or not, have a mental illness and are not receiving accommodations. While not all students with mental illnesses need accommodations, letting them know it is available is very important. In “College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health” (2012) NAMI reports the top reasons students do not receive access to accommodations are they unaware they qualify for or have the right to accommodations, did not know there were accommodations for mental health conditions, feared the stigma, regarded the process of getting appropriate documentation as too burdensome, or felt that it was too expensive to get documentation.

I asked Laura how students find out about accommodations and she pretty much echoed what my roommate had told me. A form is sent out over the summer to incoming students. Many of them call the ASC if they feel they need an accommodation. Also, if students indicate on their health forms they might have a disability or illness which requires accommodations, the ASC will call them. Students may come into the ASC of their own volition at any time during the year to request accommodations and professors may refer students to the ASC if they notice them struggling.

I had her clarify there is no outreach to let students know what kinds of accommodations are available and how to get them.

“There isn’t direct outreach, no.” Her words spilled out slowly, aware that I had found a problem.

I asked her if the ASC could be doing more to combat these issues on campus and she said, “Our best efforts come from the students and are student driven,” basically saying it was the student’s job to see the problem and come up with a solution on their own. I’ll concede she seemed open to the idea of working on these issues in the future, but I could also tell this was the first time she was really thinking about them.

When I asked Laura about the stigma on mental health on the AC campus she livened up considerably. “I do see the stigma when it involves disabilities in general, but when I work with my own students who are registered for services, they become so self-confident after taking charge of their own needs, they don’t seem to carry that stigma around.”

She says, the way she sees it, “On this campus we have a better perspective than most places. Our campus lives in a bubble. We are more inclusive, more tolerant.”

Although Laura acknowledged her own bias from being so close to the center of this issue, she spoke about the strength of her students with a wistful smile and her hand unconsciously moved to her heart.

I asked a few students around the campus what they knew about disability services and the ASC. The responses varied widely and the students themselves came from diverse backgrounds. Those already taking advantage of disability services spoke of the great relationship they have with Laura and the accommodations they have which allow them to have the same access as others.

“Laura is great. I know that if I have a problem, I can always, like, go to her office, whenever,” a sophomore English major said.

Students who had not used disability services in the past were more oblivious.

“Isn’t that where, like, deaf people go, or something?” a tall guy asked me in response to my question.

A surprisingly large number of students actually disclosed mental health diagnoses to me; however, none of them were currently using accommodations. When I asked why not, the most common answer was they didn’t know disability accommodations were for mental disorders, too.

The good news is most of the students I spoke with could see the need for an advocacy group on campus to help educate and support students about mental health on campus.

My roommate was ecstatic about this idea saying, “I would tell all my friends to join, too. The group would be really good for everybody on campus because even if you don’t have a mental illness your mother or father or sister or aunt has one and mental health is really for quote/unquote normal people, too, not just those struggling with it. College is a really important time to learn how to take care of your mind as well as your body and academic education.”

I agreed with my roommate, and we may have set in motion a plan to create this organization on campus. There is a long way to go, however, before the students on campus have the awareness they need about mental health.

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Mental Roocommodations: Mental Health on the Austin College Campus