“Hey, what time did you wake up today?” Saskia asked me. It was 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. I was still in my pajamas and had just brewed my first cup of coffee for the day. I dipped my finger into a Costco-sized jar of Nutella. “You don’t want to know.” My roommate frowned. She had stopped by the room to put down her books from her morning classes, and pick up more books for the afternoon. Leaving the room, she warned, “Maura, try not to skip class today. Again.”
My stomach dropped. Class.
I had only been at Bryn Mawr for two months, and I already shuddered at the thought of class. Particularly French class. I came to college with high ambitions. I wanted to take over the French department. I wanted to get a Master’s degree along with my Bachelors. A coup du diplôme, if you will.
But instead, I found myself in my room on the second floor of Brecon, Nutella on my fingers, skipping my sixth French class in a row. I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was that made it so easy to skip class. Perhaps it was the cold embarrassment of stuttering through a presentation. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t fall asleep before 4 a.m. and couldn’t wake up before 2 p.m. Perhaps it was because I spent 30 hours a week at a local campaign office, a place that I felt useful. Perhaps it was because I found myself manically writing books for a French boy I hadn’t seen in three years, and then in the next second—I would be sobbing on the floor of the common room at 3 a.m. There was only one reasonable explanation for this behavior.
“I’m just lazy,” I thought.
A year and a half later, I am in an evaluation room at a psychiatric hospital in Georgia. “You’re clearly Bipolar,” a woman told me apathetically. “I’m what?” I hissed. “Suicidal ideation. Highs and lows. Can’t go to class or fulfill your responsibilities. Soul-sucking…” She checked her notes, “emptiness.” The next thing I knew, I was in an open-back gown, sitting on a dirty laminate floor for 10 hours a day – praying to be released or dead.
In the summer of 2014, I was admitted to a residential treatment center in Atlanta. My assigned therapist asked me why I was here. “I’m Bipolar,” I told her. Her brow furrowed. “You have Bipolar. You’re not Bipolar.” I just stared at her with bewilderment. “Maura, you have a mental illness, but you are not your illness. Does that make sense?”
It didn’t at the time. In my personal experience, the symptoms of my mental illness often feel like they are simply character flaws. That I’m just a lazy person. A sensitive person. As my dad would often shout, a “drama queen.” Even many medical professionals view mental illness as your identity. The nurse in the evaluation room of the psychiatric hospital told me that I am Bipolar, not that I have Bipolar disorder. Another patient in the ward was crying because she was scared from her hallucinations, and a social worker told her to “shut up already.”
It took five months of treatment at possibly the best therapeutic center in the country to finally believe that I am a separate individual from my illness. After months of daily dialectical behavioral therapy sessions, I could finally look at myself in the mirror and say, “I am worthwhile. I am smart. I am a hard worker. I deserve happiness. I have Bipolar and I will be a successful adult.” I could finally return to Bryn Mawr after a two year long leave of absence.
In Fall of 2015, I moved back to Bryn Mawr’s campus. I was determined to use what I learned from the treatment center to thrive in this challenging environment. Take your meds. Go to therapy weekly. Exercise daily. Tell your professors when things are going wrong. Have your dean’s cell phone on speed dial (Thanks, Dean Heyduk).
But my biggest goal was to be open about my past. To never hide the fact that I suffer from mental illness. When I think back to my freshman year of college, I can’t help but wonder what I would have done if I talked to people who discussed the dangers of stress rather than glorify it. What if my professors reached out to me, after missing six classes in a row, and asked me if everything is alright? What if someone suggested therapy to me as a good thing, instead of something to be ashamed of?
Now, I don’t fault other people for the abyss that is Bipolar II and the damage it can do to a GPA. But I do recognize that our campus has a culture of silence about mental illness. When I find myself in a depressive episode and stuck in bed all day, I am often tempted to tell my professors that I have the flu or some other illness that is socially acceptable. When I’m walking across campus with the weight of ten million things and I’m starting to break down, I’m overwhelmed with the urgency to hide, to not be found out for being unable to gracefully handle my course load.
Furthermore, the college as a whole is not on the same page on how Bryn Mawr should view mental illness. I know professors who are very supportive and accommodating when I find myself in a manic or depressive episode. And there are professors who clearly don’t view mental illness as a reality. This past November, I was hospitalized for a week during a particularly bad manic-depressive period. When I returned to campus, one of my professors told me that, despite being in the hospital, I would still be marked down for turning in my work late by a full letter grade. “Sorry, it’s out of my hands. You can’t just turn work in late and receive no penalty.”
The week approaching that hospitalization, I called the Health Center. “Hi. I have Bipolar II and I am experiencing really bad highs and lows on a daily basis. This is an emergency. I need to see a psychiatrist.” They told me that they will get back to me. Three days later they finally called back to tell me that I could take an appointment slot in two weeks. “But this is an emergency.” They told me to hold on and hang in there.
I do reflect on what are the responsibilities of the college when it comes to mental health. Where does one draw the line in regard to level of care? This March, I convened a deliberative forum on the topic of mental health on campus. 18 students came together for two hours to discuss the central concerns in regard to mental health at Bryn Mawr and recommend changes for improvement. All in all, there was a lot of discussion about the lack of preventative care for students. The college is quick to jump on assigning a psychiatrist or encouraging medical leave when a student is on the brink of suicide or is already self-harming. But where is the effort to reduce these instances?
Why aren’t there more full-time personnel in the counseling center? Why aren’t there more persons of color or queer persons in the counseling center? Can the self-care campaign be expanded to more strategic coping skills than just eating sweets and taking baths? Can Bryn Mawr establish more spaces for relaxation rather than studying? How can we stop glorifying stress on campus? Shouldn’t the college mandate to all professors that mental illness is an observed reality and that a student shouldn’t be penalized for experiencing the harsh symptoms of their illness? These are all questions that came up during the forum and often swirl through my mind.
I don’t know where the line is when it comes to the level of care a college should provide for students. What I do know is that Bryn Mawr’s spirit is about uplifting its students and launching them into success. It’s high time that we start including mental health care with that mission.