Op-Ed: Confront institutional ableism

Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 7:05pm

One of the most likely ways your friend, peer, student or child will die in college is by suicide. Though researchers at the University of Virginia have found that college students are less likely to commit suicide than those of the same age (18 to 24) in the general population, suicide is responsible for more student deaths than alcohol use. According to the American Psychological Association, the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors reported that the incidence of serious mental health issues on campus has risen 16 percent since 2000. The APA also admits that though significant measures have been put in place to address students’ mental health concerns, campus counseling centers struggle to maintain expanding student need. Something more needs to be done.

The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment for spring 2014 shows that between spring 2013 and spring 2014, 13.5 percent of students reported depression as a factor that negatively affected their studies. The percentage of students who report depression as a prominent factor affecting their studies was much greater than student reports of drug and alcohol use, which stand at 1.8 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. Furthermore, 2.5 percent of college students report having seriously considered suicide.

Based on the ACHA data, alcohol use may increase the prevalence of suicidal ideation among college students. As alcohol use remains a salient issue on campus, it could be placed under the student mental health umbrella, under which all major student mental health concerns could be prioritized based on student need. The reported incidences of depression and suicidal ideation should not be ignored, nor should the link between student behavior and mental health. Let’s take a break from facts and figures, and bring this a little closer to home.

Self disclosure: As a current graduate student in the School of Social Work, I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, still struggle to overcome it and have seriously considered suicide at various junctures in my life, roughly beginning when I was a teenager. There have been numerous times when I was afraid to talk about it with others, and my fear often kept me from acting authentically.

As an undergraduate transfer student at the University of Michigan, I was required to participate in AlcoholEdu for College, an online program that has demonstrated success in reducing high-risk behaviors related to alcohol use among students. Student drinking is a public health concern, and programs designed to address the issue are important and can be effective, but I wonder if ableism contributes to the stigma attached to conversations about suicide and depression. A program similar to AlcoholEdu but geared to positively affect students’ more pressing mental health needs would confront institutionalized ableism and address what appears to be a greater student need. If programs like AlcoholEdu have been effective to limit risky student drinking behaviors, why have incoming students (as freshmen or otherwise) not been required to participate in a similar online program to address the more pressing issue of student suicide and the prevalence of depression?

On April 26, 2015, University students gathered in the Diag to show support for a student who had posted a suicide note on the social media app Yik Yak. The note sparked a larger discussion about the reality of student suicide and depression and the importance of acknowledging the reality of mental health issues on campus. One student interviewed by MLive discussed that though Wolverines compete with one another in the academic setting, it is still important to reach out in support and demonstrate concern for other students’ well-being. Some “yaks” posted to the site after the incident stressed the importance a friend’s intervention played in keeping them safe.

Recent social work literature would support what students said in their “yaks.” In Barry Duncan’s edited anthology, “The Heart and Soul of Change,” John Norcross, a professor at the University of Scranton, demonstrated that the effective use of empathy is among the most predictive components of positive psychotherapy outcomes — even more so than deploying a specific intervention model.

This leads me to believe that students’ everyday practice of empathy can significantly transform student experience. An educational program providing some basic empathic techniques might be helpful in reducing the incidence of depression and suicidal ideation among students, as well as creating a more nurturing and respectful student body. In regard to the racism that exists on campus as evidenced by the recent flyer and hate speech incidents, a more empathic student body might not only reduce depression among students and begin to redress ableism on campus, but also might reduce the likelihood of racist and heterosexist attacks on vulnerable groups or individuals.

I echo the sentiment that support from peers, often just feeling listened to, has greatly influenced my decision to keep going. It’s time we speak up for ourselves and one another and consistently challenge each other to learn to listen and confront privilege and oppression.

Nathan Schmall is a School of Social Work graduate student.