University disability resources let students stop feeling ashamed of their mental illnesses

By Claire Hettinger

I am an example of waiting too long to get help. I needed it, and I suffered drastically because I didn’t reach out and get it. Yes, one panic attack was frightening enough to send me to the doctor, and since then, I thought that my prescription of Xanax was all the help I could get. I had no idea how many options were in place to help me on my own campus.

Seventy-five percent of lifetime mental illnesses appear before age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So for students on campus who will develop a mental illness, most cases will appear before or while they are attending college. Because of this, it is important for students to be aware of what is available to them in case they find themselves in the midst of a mental crisis.

The most common mental condition has changed in the last 10 years from depression to anxiety disorders, said Patricia Ricketts, a clinical counselor for the University Counseling Center.

The increased pressure on students to get a career that will make them money, instead of perhaps something that they are passionate about, could be an influence on the increase of anxiety disorders, Ricketts said. Students and families are also under financial pressure due to the increasing cost of higher education. These factors cause more stress for students than in the past, she said.

The Counseling Center does not routinely diagnose students, but it helps them work through short-term issues or passes them on to another source of help.

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“Not everyone who walks into the (Counseling) Center is going to be diagnosed with something,” Ricketts said. “It is just (helpful to have) a professional outside your normal circle who can help you work through things.”

The Counseling Center works frequently with students with diagnosable illnesses, and Ricketts said panic attacks are a common complaint.

She said “bright, high-functioning students who put a lot of pressure on themselves” are likely to suffer from panic attacks and anxiety disorders.

“Students have come to the center, (and) they don’t have what we would consider a mental illness,” Ricketts said. They may just be “struggling with adjustment to college, with a certain test anxiety, with family pressure (or with) sadness over a breakup.”

The Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services is a department dedicated to leveling the playing field for all students, said Dr. Kim Collins, assistant director with DRES. The department defines a disability as something that impacts aspects of daily living, such as learning and academics, Collins said.  

“Sometimes students with mental health issues don’t think that it is a disability,” she said.

She explained that the services offered are for a wide range of disabilities, but that 72 percent of the students who are registered with DRES have hidden or nonvisible disabilities, like mental illness. Every student is assigned to an access specialist who works with them to provide flexible accommodations, Collins said. One option includes priority registration so students can make a schedule to best suit their illnesses. Students can also request extended exam times if they have extreme test anxiety or panic.

“We’ve had students, for example, who if they have depression, even when they are treated, they will know maybe once or twice during the semester they are just going to have a period of time where they can’t function,” she said.

DRES works with professors in instances such as these to ensure the fair treatment of students, keeping in mind all factors of their mental illness, Collins said. Registering with DRES gives students extra protection and helps to insure their success on campus, she said.

DRES provides free and unlimited therapy, unlike the Counseling Center and the McKinley Mental Health Clinic, which only provide short-term help with a limited number of visits. DRES’s therapy options are catered to the student’s needs and provide options such as group therapy, private therapy or homework coaching.

I had heard of the Counseling Center, but it never crossed my mind as something I needed. And I never knew that my panic disorder could be considered a disability.  

I was living under the impression that only crazy people go to counseling, and I went to such lengths to convince myself I wasn’t crazy.

I had no idea that so many people care on this campus, and that so many people actually want to help us succeed. Even though my mental illness is hidden, it has always made me feel ashamed, like maybe taking deep breaths and getting more sleep should be able to fix me. But I’ve come to understand more about my illness, and I know it’s more complicated than that.

I have come to realize that just because the people around me don’t understand my need for therapy, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go. It seems simple, I know, but it was a great, drawn-out revelation for me. I finally came to terms with my illness, and I realized that if I wanted to feel better, I would need counsel and guidance. I might even need medicine, but this did not make me crazy.

The crazy thing was thinking that anyone else’s opinion, based on incorrect stigmas, mattered more than my actual health and my ability to get better.  

Hiding my mental illness did not make it go away, or make my life any easier. It only made me ashamed, like it was my fault I felt this way. I was living in fear that if people knew what “I was really like,” they wouldn’t look at me the same — I would go from an average college student to a crazy and sick person.  

But I’ve since learned that needing professional help doesn’t mean you are crazy. All it meant was that I was being smart about my illness and using all the resources available to me.

It took me a long time to recognize what I was going through as an actual illness.

But as I now realize, there is nothing to be ashamed of, and I refuse to let the stigmas other people ignorantly believe keep me from being healthy and happy again.

I need help to get better, and that is OK.  

Claire can be reached at [email protected].