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Mental Illness - Education and the Brain

Ameneh's picture

“Nearly half of all students at some point find themselves feeling so depressed they have trouble functioning, and 15 percent meet the criteria for clinical depression, according to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association”. [1]


The relationship between education and mental illness is complicated and long withstanding. While the extent to which one impact the other is not certain, the correlation between the two is undeniable. It is somewhat a vicious cycle - the high-pressure educational environment interacts with a student’s biological predisposition (genetic or neurological) to create a mental illness that makes it very difficult for the student to continue to thrive in that educational environment. The quote given above is for a New York Times article in 2004 and is testimony for the fact that mental illness is a serious problem in the realm of education. This trend is sharply on the rise and there is significant evidence to back this claim, “Among students seen at campus counseling centers, the number taking psychiatric medications rose to 24.5 percent in 2003-2004, from 17 percent in 2000 and just 9 percent in 1994, according to the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, conducted annually by Dr. Robert P. Gallagher of the University of Pittsburgh. Most college mental health counselors, surveys show, also have noticed a sharp rise in the number of students with severe crises, like major depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders and drug and alcohol problems severe enough to require hospitalization”. [1]


 Mental illnesses go far beyond hospitalization: they can be fatal. The American Society for Suicide Prevention reports the second leading cause of death among college students is suicide. “Nearly 1,100 suicides will occur on college campuses this year…In the past 50 years, the suicide rate for those of age 15-24 increased by over 200%. About 12 people aged 15-24 will commit suicide today - that is one about every two hours”. [2]These numbers, however, are just part of the problem. The bigger issue is how mental illness continues to be such a taboo topic. The stigma that surrounds and is associated with mental illnesses does nothing but perpetuate the vicious cycle. It isn’t talked about, it isn’t dealt with and the numbers continue to rise. 


The question, then, is what does this have to do with education and the brain? 


Essentially, most mental disorders involve an interplay between environmental and biological factors. The study of the brain, then, is essential to understanding how mental illnesses work. About depression, for example, The New York Times Health Guide claims, “Because depression often runs in families, it may have a genetic component. Data from family, twin, adoption, and genetic studies strongly indicate a genetic factor…Evidence supports the theory that depression has a biologic basis. The basic biologic causes of depression are strongly linked to abnormalities in the delivery of certain key neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain)”. [3] Research into the changes in the brain and mental illnesses has been gaining momentum. It has been discovered that there is more to depression that changing levels of chemicals in the brain. More than that, the very structure of the brain may change with long-term depression. Areas of the brain that are affected by depression are also the areas that are important to education - memory and attention, for example, are in the hippocampus and frontal lobes, both of which are affected by depression. [4]



It seems to be that the underlying biological basis for mental disorders is quite similar to the that of physical illnesses. Why, then, it must be questioned, that such a huge difference exists between the two in society? A student can easily talk to a Professor about missing a class because they had chicken pox. However, how many students would feel ok about telling their professors or even their friends that they had to miss a class because of a mental illness, say a panic attack? Not too many. There are two main reasons for why this is so: stigma and lack of knowledge. 


There is a huge amount of stigma associated with having a mental illness. It isn’t treated like a disease, but like a weakness. It is almost as if you caused yourself to have a disorder because you, as a person couldn’t cope. However, there is sufficient evidence to show that it isn’t just ‘in the mind’ but it is an actual, legitimate illness just like say, having chicken pox is. More educators need to be aware of this. An article on the subject says, “"These days, people are very aware of physical disabilities -- colleges are putting in curb cuts for people in wheelchairs, stocking their libraries with Braille books, and so forth,"…"But often they are not so sensitive to people with psychiatric disabilities, who may also require special assistance"”. [5]This shows that mental illness has profound implications for educators. It should be the responsibility of educators to do whatever they can to help mentally ill students fully immerse themselves into their academic life. 


Mental illnesses are in the brain like physical illnesses are, then, they should be accommodated in the same way. But that is the second step. Before taking steps to fix the problem, it must be identified in the first place. Educators and teachers should be looking out for signs of mental illness in their students. “Susan Murray sat through a single psychology course before taking over a class at Jonathan Levin High School in the Bronx. The introduction to teenage behavior was slapdash and vague, she recalls, but given that she was going to teach math, she figured it would suffice. How quickly she would learn otherwise”. [6] Having the knowledge about the functioning of the brain and its subsequent influence on behavior would give teachers the tools they need to identify the students who may be suffering from a mental illness. Moreover, students themselves should be able to identify that there is a problem, a reason for their mental illness. This lack of knowledge is one of the reasons that makes 1,100 students a year kill themselves. And it makes sense, when you feel bouts of depression that you don’t understand and can’t make sense of, it is only natural to blame yourself and to think that is something that can not be fixed. It is these misconceptions that lead to the student feeling such hopelessness that they decide not living is better than having such a life. If students are aware of mental illnesses, their biological basis and what they entail, these problems would not exist. And this awareness and knowledge needs to start from a young age. For example, “The book, titled ''Helping Each Other,'' is being used at public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn to teach third and fourth graders about health care and chronic illness”. [7]This simple process could potentially save a life that would otherwise be lost to suicide. 


Having identified this, there needs to be a de-stigmatization of mental illness and a increase in knowledge about it, what remains to be discussed is how to make this happen and how it would help. In fact, some colleges are already working on it, “At the State University of New York here, the Supported Education Program is there to help. The project, which began last fall, is a joint effort of the college and the Guidance Center, a mental-health clinic in New Rochelle. A social worker from the Guidance Center spends three days a week at SUNY, seeing students for one-on-one sessions and in a group. Generally, they discuss not the deep-rooted causes or even the symptoms of psychiatric problems -- these are the problems of a person's therapist -- but the concrete ways to best navigate classes, schoolwork and social life”. [5] Students suffering from a mental illness should not be stigmatized as they often are or be viewed as insane individuals who can not and should not be part of the so-called normal society or community. On the other hand, like the article suggests, every possible effort should be made for them to remain part of the educational institution and their special needs be catered to. A student, for example, should be able to request to take an exam alone as compared to in a fully packed lecture hall if he feels anxious in such situations. Similarly, a student who is suffering from major depression should be allowed extra time for exams and papers as intrusive thoughts might make time management harder for them. Not only should students with mental illness be allowed such things, but they should feel comfortable doing so. Because it is not their fault that their brain and body functions in a way that is not always conducive to being a student.


This does not end the problem and raises more questions than it answers. Now that we know that mental illnesses are physical as much as they are emotional, what should be done? It has been suggested that every effort should be made to make living a normal academic life as easy as possible for mentally ill students. However, the advocates of medicine to treat mental disorders may disagree. They might suggest that , for example, when we know that it is abnormal levels of neurotransmitters and the like that cause a particular mental illnesses, then that is what we need to fix to rather than the given suggestion of making concessions to accommodate mentally ill patients. I stand by the latter. For many people suffering from a mental illness is part of their identity and who they are. Many of them, myself included, would choose to experience the mental disorder. Dealing with a mental illness does not to fixed by drugs that alter the chemistry of the brain and ‘fix’ us, but in doing so also strip us of a bit of our power, a bit of our self. That, in my opinion, is too big a sacrifice. 


Works cited


[1] Mary Duenwald, “The Dorms May Be Great, But How's the Counseling?” 


[2] Gayla Martindale, “Suicide and Suicidal Behavior Among College Students” 


 [3] Depression 


[4] Chapter 6: What happens inside people’s brains when they’re depressed? How brains reshape during mood disorders 


[5] Lynne Ames, “When getting through the college maze calls for a guide” 


[6] Greg Winter, “Why Educators Falter Before the Enigma of Violence” 


[7] Crayons Fill Gaps on Illness 







Paul Grobstein's picture

mental "illness" as the canary in the classroom?

"For many people suffering from a mental illness is part of their identity and who they are."

There's a really interesting and I think important idea here.  See Temple Grandin on autism, Kay Redfield Jamison on bipolar disorder, etc etc.  And its one that I think goes well beyond mental "illness" in its relevance for the classroom (and life in general?).  My guess is that lots of people of lots of kinds are being asked to give up "part of their identity" to function effectively in lots of social contexts, and being made to varying degrees uncomfortable by that.