Stigma on Campus

Posted on March 16, 2011

Brie Maltz
Education Unit, Fountain House

Going to school can be quite overwhelming for students, and even more so, for students with mental illness.  Many of our students have felt the effects of the stigma that persists around mental illness.   
When I first started working as the School Liaison in the Education Unit, it was my job to help our students navigate the resources at their colleges. The most important connection for our students to make is with the Office for Students with Disabilities.  This office provides accommodations and support to students with disabilities, depending on how their disabilities affect their academic performance. We have developed partnerships with many different schools and cultivated relationships with disabilities offices that go above and beyond for our students.  Of course, like any other system, some offices are great, and some are not so great.
I will never forget my first direct experience with stigma.  I accompanied a student to meet with the Director of the Office for Students with Disabilities to discuss accommodations that she would be eligible for.  A deaf student, she first inquired about their deaf program.  Then I asked about the necessary documentation to certify accommodations for her mental illness. The director looked at her with surprise and said, “Oh, you don’t look like someone with mental illness!”  I was speechless.
What does a person with mental illness look like? Physical and learning disabilities are often times more obvious and easier for others to deal with than psychological disabilities. Even though mental illness is not visible, it is very much an obstacle to a student’s success.  Nevertheless, students with mental illness can and do excel with the proper supports in place.  Fountain House understands this, but what do you do when stigma exists in the very places that are supposed to advocate for you? 

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