I'm going to make one suggestion that I believe represents everything I wish to discuss in this column. Let’s mandate that every course syllabus include prominent, comprehensive information on psychological resources on campus and on how and when to attain academic accommodations for wellness issues. Let’s break down the barriers between our work and our well-being and create at Columbia, with only a modicum of effort and difficulty, the germ of an environment of academic wellness.
This notion isn’t a new one, nor did I come up with it independently, but I did get to thinking about it a couple of weeks ago when a friend forwarded me a provocatively titled article. This winter, it seems, the Wall Street Journal published one of those perfunctory “oh, this new generation” articles about the rising tide of mental illness at colleges and its classroom challenges. In the fine tradition of sensationalist copywriting, WSJ titled it “A Serious Illness or an Excuse?”
Frankly, this was an editorial botch. The article is far less judgmental than its title. The bulk of the article attempts to faithfully report the perceptions and confusion of professors and administrators trying to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirement of reasonable accommodations for students with documented psychological disabilities without uniform knowledge or approaches to the problems. It also muses on the difficulty of providing education and preparation for what seems like a ballooning of mish-mash accommodations for a less visible, less discussed, and less obviously accommodated impediment.
As the article’s title suggests, the invisibility that makes it so hard for professors to know how or when to respond to a struggling student, whether or not they request assistance, and the increasing visibility of mental illness at colleges have created a sometimes skeptical environment. Lori Gottlieb, drawing on psychologist Wendy Mogel’s interviews with college deans, reveals in her recent Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” that many administrators across the nation view our generation as one of “teacups”—students so fragile that they will break if things don’t go their way. I suspect our generation does have a new relationship with and perception of personal well-being. But I seriously doubt that this makes us more fragile or imperils the sanctity of disability accommodations and the structure and preparatory potential of college academics.
Instead of lamenting and fearing change, questioning and discrediting valid, unknown pain, it is time to think about actionable, achievable, and progressive steps to address reality.
Thus, psychological resources and accommodations should be posted on every syllabus. And perhaps in the sidebars of Courseworks, too. Mandating that instructors provide this information forces them to think about their policies for accommodations rather than facing an ad hoc decision, without necessitating a universal policy. It familiarizes students with resources and eliminates over-conservative caution, while legitimizing through visibility and open reaffirmation and discussion the use of what can be stigmatized resources—for the psychologically ill. And by simply increasing the presence of the issue of wellness in academia, it encourages instructors to exercise basic care and follow-up with students—ensuring that they receive both accommodations and access to appropriate resources—that makes pedagogy more than the dissemination of knowledge, but the actual engaged fostering of a mind.
There’s the problem of enforcement: Federal law compels Columbia to post textbook information for classes well ahead of the first day, but as Spectator’s staff editorial pointed out (“Ongoing registration woes,” Jan. 18) that rarely happens. And teachers rarely follow mandates to review academic integrity policies in class. Then there’s the problem that, I admit, I epitomize: I suffer from a neurological disorder that is progressively limiting my motor function. I know that I am covered by the ADA and I know the accommodations due to me. But a silly sense of pride and fear of acknowledging that my motor controls have reached a new benchmark have kept me from utilizing these resources.
Nor can this little thing stand alone. It must rise in tandem with the development of peer support networks, time management aids, accessibility projects, and a host of other simple, achievable, mutually beneficial goals. Any goal focused on creating academically well students must not be free of the development of socially, emotionally, totally well students.
But one step at a time. This goal is eminently realizable. The ubiquity of the code of academic integrity on syllabi gives precedent. The information exists and has been compiled before. When something is this easy and this promising, when it may help catalyze future actionable projects that will perpetuate its momentum, why wouldn’t we pursue it? We can solve the problems and eliminate the attitudes of the WSJ and Atlantic articles. It takes time, but each small goal’s change and benefit will be visible. So let’s do it.
Mark Hay is a Columbia College senior majoring in religion and political science. He is a coordinator of the Student Wellness Project and the acting chair for the InterPublications Alliance. The Whole Wellness runs alternate Wednesdays.