My academic career is not what I expected it to be. As a student with disabilities and mental illnesses that have, in many ways, come to define my experiences as a student, I am now a far cry from the “normal” kid who started university back in day. Along the way, my personal identity has been forced to adapt and shift dramatically. I’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) to define what it is to be smart, what it is to be responsible, what it is to be able or disabled, what it is to call oneself a student.
In some ways, a university is the ideal place to get diagnosed with mental illnesses and disabilities. Lots of post-secondary institutions have support structures in place that, in theory at least, make professional help and advocacy as accessible as possible. At the same time, though, the structure and bureaucracy can be hellish, and it’s hard to express how damaging the attitudes of some people can be. Stigma surrounding mental illness is a major problem in all aspects of society, and universities are not immune to it. In fact, in some ways it might be worse: broadly speaking, academia values rationality and personal merit, and those aren’t always compatible with, say, “I don’t know why I’m so afraid to go to class but I am” or “I am literally not capable of staying on task right now.”
It gets more complicated, because rationality and personal merit are things that I deeply value as well. It is a daily challenge to reconcile my belief that I am smart and work hard to get what I want with the reality that sometimes I need extra help. Being mentally ill also doesn’t shield you from societal attitudes about mental illness. Those attitudes make it all too easy to hate having “Disabled Student” as part of your identity, or to develop an internal litany of “you’re lazy, you’re stupid, you don’t belong here.”
“You don’t belong here.” That’s the worst, one, I think, because it breaks my heart to think of all the students who don’t get the help they need and so drop out, thinking it was a personal failure on their part. That is a huge waste; the people I know who have been in that situation have huge potential to succeed, given the right support.
As it turns out, I don’t need to be told that I should be trying harder or should have been more responsible when I ask for help. I’ve already had those thoughts myself, thanks, and in the past I’ve beaten myself up about them so much that I’ve stopped myself from getting the help I need. But I’m starting to figure out that I can contain multitudes: I am smart, and I have mental illnesses. I am a hard worker, and I need extra help sometimes. I am a really good student, and I am a student with disabilities. These are not contradictions, and we are all better served when they’re not treated as such.