More Than Mental Health Issues

tw: suicide

On Saturday, I couldn’t move from my living room or eat or drink or read or think about anything other than not existing. Two days later, I gave a presentation to 35 faculty and staff members across the university on self-care strategies for academics.

I framed self-care as political because it challenges whose bodies, lives, and minds are worthy of care and also draws attention to mental health. I shared statistics about mental health and higher education:

In 2015, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that college students seek mental health services at 5x the rate of enrollment. From 2010 to 2015, “institutional enrollment grew by 5.6%, the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments increased by 38.4%” (7). And according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, more than one-third of U.S. college students reported depression.

Being situated within a university—an institution centered on mental and intellectual and emotional labor—takes a toll on the bodies who work and teach and learn within those spaces. During the discussion, someone raised their hand and clarified that self-care is much more than “mental health issues.”

More than mental health issues.

This evening at my book club meeting, we were discussing Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life and the institutionalization of diversity. Although universities adopt terms like “diversity” and “equality,” the terms alone are ineffective:

But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This “not translation” is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality. (90)

I pointed to Ahmed’s discussion of institutional access (“access is pedagogy”) and creating space in institutions that were not created to provide access:

We have to keep pushing if we are to open up spaces to those who have not been accommodated. Or those who are not accommodated have to keep pushing even after they have apparently been accommodated. For example, even when universities have access policies, it is often still left to students with disabilities to find out about those policies, to ask about access arrangements at each and every event. The very effort required to find out about access can end up making events inaccessible. Access can become inaccessible. Diversity becomes work for those whoa re not accommodated by an existing system, whether or not they aim to modify that system. (114)

Access and accessibility are not the same thing. Providing access isn’t the same as putting in the work to make physical and social spaces accessible and inclusive. That work is hard, though, and is usually placed on the shoulders of the people who need the access.

There’s the issue: Folks who deviate from the norm aren’t accommodated by the university (in terms of equitable access and treatment) yet are expected to be accommodating within those spaces. And if you are given access to the space, but it it still inaccessible to you, you (rather than the space) become the problem:

When you try to fit a norm that is not shaped to fit your body, you create an incongruity. You become an incongruity. (125)

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls this as a “misfit.” This misfit is both the space that is inaccessible to particular bodies and the people who draw attention to the inaccessibility. The misfit deviates the norms of an institution.

After the book club meeting, I came home and read the news that someone I knew from graduate school committed suicide—someone so passionate about higher education and learning and who had to exert positivity all the time that it hurts so much to know that their body was made unwelcome within that space.

“More than mental health issues” redirects the conversation away from mental health. We’ve talked about it, and now we can move on. When I noted Ahmed’s discussion of creating space in institutions that were not created to provide access, my point was waved off as unrealistic because that change isn’t possible.

Making spaces accessible for diverse bodies and minds who deviate from the norm matters. Working toward the change matters. Mental health matters.

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