It was March 2015, and I was getting ready to step on a stage in front of 400 or so of my colleagues in higher education and tell them all that once upon a time, I had attempted suicide. It would be an understatement to say that my nerves were fraught, but I also knew that somewhere in that audience was at least one person that needed to hear they were not alone. At one point, that one person had been me – only there hadn’t been anyone else telling this story then.
It was for this reason that approximately one year earlier, Sue Caulfield and I started Committed – a series of posts dedicated to telling the story of being a student affairs professional experiencing mental illness. When we first reached out, we expected one or two contributors. We were overwhelmed when over 20 people reached out and wanted to write something or contribute in some way. These were people that were “out” about their illness at work or coming out for the first time. And many of them had struggled with the support – or lack thereof – that they received from their colleagues and supervisors.
Despite recent efforts, there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental illness – in the world, but also in higher education. Many of our efforts focus on providing support services to students – which only makes sense. I often argue, though, that if we start at the root – in other words, with our staff and faculty – those efforts will benefit the students. If we carry stigma against our coworkers, that will come out when we work with students, whether we intend for it to or not. If we learn to talk about mental illness and provide resources for mental illness to those we work with, students will also see that and know we are a safe person to contact about their own experiences.
We have a long way to go to make higher education a safe space for people experiencing mental illness. The Committed Project is just one resource out there, but it is the only one we’ve seen that addresses support for professionals in higher education. In my ideal world, there are resources available through ACPA, NASPA, and elsewhere that allow professionals to share their stories and get the support they need and deserve – and I hope to see the day when we don’t need to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness anymore.
If you are interested in learning more or doing more to help professionals with mental illness on your campus, consider doing one of the following:
- Invite a speaker to talk about their own experience
- Download the toolkit offered at The Committed Project and share with others in your office/department
- Read through the blog posts or the Committed book – or listen to an episode of the podcast – and host a discussion
And if you are someone experiencing mental illness, know that there is help out there, and we’re not planning on going away any time soon.
– Blog entry courtesy of Kristen Abell