College students on campuses across the United States have been engaging in critical conversations about mental health at both the individual and institutional levels, but there is one condition that all too frequently goes overlooked.
It is time that we talk about grief, recognize it as a mental health condition, and address it as such at Columbia. Grief is something that has been familiar to me since before I started here.
On July 21, 2017, one of my best friends, Curtis, died in a drunk driving accident. Curtis was the kind of friend who was in it for the long haul: He made trips down to Los Angeles from the San Francisco Bay Area every year for my birthday, attended my graduation and going-away parties, and loved my siblings and friends simply because they were important to me.
A month after he passed away, I arrived at Barnard. I did everything I could to prepare myself for my new adventure with my loss hanging over me. I intentionally minimized the risk of overworking myself—I signed up for three classes with plenty of downtime during the week and made an appointment with the Office of Disability Services to discuss potential accommodations that would be available to me as a grieving student.
During my meeting with an accommodations coordinator, however, I was told that I could not receive accommodations for grief because the office does not consider it a diagnosable disability. Knowing that anxiety and depression are among the most common disabilities that are addressed by ODS, I was stunned. I was told that I could only receive accommodations if my grief enhanced an existing mental illness, such as clinical depression or anxiety. Since I have an anxiety diagnosis, I was able to receive the accommodations that I needed, but I was not there for anxiety—I was there for grief. I left the office feeling disturbed by the fact that I had to mislabel the details of my psychological condition in order to get the support I needed. I felt even more disturbed thinking about grieving students without mental health diagnoses being turned away.
An estimated 22 to 30 percent of college students are suffering from grief at any given time, per one study’s estimate. The Barnard and Columbia community has faced the tragic losses of several students since the start of the school year, which have altered the lives of many students. Furthermore, a nationwide suicide crisis in colleges and egregiously high rates of gun violence in the United States have made clear to all of us that grief is a real threat to the well-being of young people. Thus, it is critical that our university recognizes grief as a significant mental health condition that affects many students’ abilities to succeed in school.
Life threw me another punch when my beloved grandfather passed away in February. He was my greatest role model, my best friend, and a loving adult figure who had a constant presence in my upbringing. I had a midterm scheduled for the day after his passing, and I had to be home in California for his funeral on the makeup date. My professor did not offer me an alternative testing date, and I had to take it the next day before catching a flight home.
A sudden, major loss takes a lot of time and energy for the human brain to process. In a healthy, non-grieving individual, a proper sleep schedule and healthy habits like exercise and meditation should be sufficient for information processing. For students, however, who don’t necessarily have the time to rest and take things slowly, the grieving brain has to compromise basic cognitive functions and quickly burn through energy reserves in order to deal with the sudden loss of a familiar presence.
I’ve dealt with these issues firsthand. My memory has suffered to a notable degree, and my concentration has declined significantly. But perhaps the most frustrating impairment is my inability to communicate digitally or maintain a schedule. As a result, getting through the school week without missing assignments, classes, appointments, emails, and other important responsibilities is really hard. If I did not have the accommodations that I received from the Office of Disability Services for my anxiety (which I do not actually need help with), I would feel panicked about school every day. With this support system, I’m confident that I can finish the semester strong.
I need to make clear that my experience is not universal. Grief symptoms can be similar to those of depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder—something entirely different—or a combination of many different conditions. Some people experience complicated grief, which is an exceptionally debilitating kind of grief that demands consistent professional support and intervention. Every person experiences it differently.
Considering the scope of grief on college campuses and the impact that it has on a student’s ability to succeed, I implore Columbia generally to take grief more seriously and the Office of Disability Services more specifically to recognize grief as a psychological disability that merits receiving accommodations—just like it does with depression, anxiety, and most other diagnosable mental health issues. Additional resources like support groups, which Barnard already has for students who have lost a parent, would go a long way in helping students suffering other losses as well.
Like institutional conversations about grief, those that take place between individuals are another area for improvement. We should be more intentional in how we interact with grieving friends. The best way to foster an environment conducive to healing is to destigmatize conversation. Perhaps a grieving friend does not feel ready to speak about their loss, but you cannot know if you do not ask. We are not looking for answers or advice; we are looking for human connection and all the joys that come with strong friendships. Grief is one of life’s cruelties that affects everyone at some point or another, so we must learn how to talk to each other about it. If anyone is interested in hearing about him, I would love to talk about my good friend Curtis.
The author is a junior at Barnard College majoring in urban studies.
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