Mental Health Inclusion Must Start in Higher Ed

Stephanie Robertson challenges higher education to lead the way in ensuring mental health is an integral part of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

August 13, 2020
 
 
Istock/Maria siubar

Just a few weeks after starting as director of community engagement and inclusion at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, I was participating in a workshop on identity. I sat at a small round table with students. We assembled Post-it notes in front of us, each one representing an aspect of our identity that we believe shapes us and our interactions with society. My list read:

1)   Black

2)   Woman

3)   Married

4)   Educated

5)   Mom (to a fur baby)

6)   Bipolar II

Though it was an easy list for me to draft, I contemplated whether to actually include the sixth item. After all, I was still new in my role. I wasn't sure if I was ready to share this part of me.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder around eight years ago, but have suffered from a mental health condition since I was 27 and was misdiagnosed with severe depression while in law school.

Mental health conditions affect people differently. For me, it is a chronic illness that includes bouts of depression and less frequent times of hypomania, which, at a minimum, means I sleep less, have lots of energy, and obsess over particular work projects and hobbies. This illness has shaped a good portion of my adult life. I am deeply affected by it, and many times, I am unwell because of it. I might be further along in my career if it weren't for several major relapses due to an unmanaged illness. Relationships have suffered, my finances have suffered, and I have suffered.

As I considered sharing my list, the fear of judgment that I have harbored throughout my life echoed in my head. I felt other people would see me as less than. I would become less capable, less intelligent, less driven, and, ultimately, unfit to work at a top business school with some of the most talented and brilliant students in the world.

But I also have seen the world through a lens that most people haven't. During my highs, I've become an expert on things I may not otherwise have tried. The lows have been horrible, and I would never wish them on anyone. Yet once on the other side, those experiences have given me a level of compassion I'm not sure I would have without Bipolar II. This journey is valuable in the profession I've chosen -- to help other people on their own paths in life.

I looked at the expectant faces of the students around me and thought about my purpose in this role. After having spoken with a number of people at the school, I already realized fostering a community where people could be their authentic selves was paramount. If that truly was one of my goals, I knew I would first have to be my own authentic self. I shared my full list.

Being open with that small group led to the confidence to share my story more broadly. A few weeks later, I was introducing myself to a crowd of roughly 400 first-year MBA students during their orientation. I stumbled over some horrible jokes and then said, "and I have a mental illness." I saw all eyes on me. The students were waiting intently to hear what I was going to say next.

I began talking again: "I'm tasked in making this place more welcoming for you all, to create a school where you truly feel you belong. We believe authenticity is the key to this, and we've asked you, even before you step on campus, to bring your authentic selves to Fuqua. However, we can't truly ask you to do that if we don't do that ourselves first."

I spoke about our mission and goals, as well as initiatives that were in the works. I made a few other bad jokes, thanked everyone for their attention, and then I left. I went home that evening, told my husband how I revealed my mental illness at my new job, and he said, "Wow, well, that's one way to do it."

Environments of Unconditional Support

Disclosing my struggles was far from easy. Most people with a mental illness live in fear of others finding out, even though studies say that at least one in four adults has a diagnosable condition. However, a large part of my role is to create a culture that is inclusive and welcoming to all, and I know that I need to share my truth to create a space where others feel they can do the same.

For me, the last 15 months being open about my condition have been challenging, yet also enlightening and liberating. If I'm having a bad day, instead of telling people I have a headache, I simply say, "I'm in a dip right now." Instead of saying I have to go to the dentist, I now say, "I have a therapy appointment." And instead of saying. "I went to bed late, and that's why I'm groggy," I can say "I had to change my medication." This has allowed me to spend more time on my actual work and less time trying to cover up a key part of my life.

As a result, I've found many allies who genuinely want the best for me. For example, a colleague, who, upon hearing that I have Bipolar II, asked what it was he needed to do for me if ever I was "not OK." It was a simple yet poignant moment because he was sincere in both the fact that he knew very little about my mental illness and that he wanted to learn more so he could become a better colleague and friend. I told him, "Just continue to ask how you can help, especially during those moments." And he did and continues to do so.

Last fall, we at Fuqua created a campaign for World Mental Health Day in which students signed a pledge to reduce stigma and agreed to share experiences and information to spread awareness and acceptance. Additionally, we've hosted large and small group dialogues throughout the year for our students to discuss mental health conditions.

In this new world, the Fuqua community has continued to support one another. Within a week after the school was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we hosted a virtual mental health panel with breakout sessions composed of students, faculty and staff to provide a safe space for us all to discuss how we were being affected. We've continued to use virtual meeting rooms to have discussions about topics related to mental health, including how COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of marginalized communities. We've actually seen an increase in participants as we express our worries and fears as well as our gratitude for each other.

I know I am lucky to work in a place that is committed to authenticity. In many ways, it was the best possible setting to share openly and, looking back, it's not surprising that my willingness to be vulnerable was met with respect and compassion. Students, faculty and staff deserve such unconditional support from their institution as well, especially during this time of uncertainty and isolation we are all experiencing.

We, along with other colleges and universities, can provide an inclusive environment for our communities by doing the following:

  • Encourage senior leaders who have experienced mental health conditions, or have been close to someone who has, to share their experiences. Seeing someone in such a role be open has the ability to further destigmatize mental health conditions.
  • Create a variety of opportunities -- one-on-one and group conversations, literary channels, ways to showcase artwork and so on -- where people can share their stories through mediums in which they are most comfortable.
  • Provide required training around mental wellness and mental health conditions for students, faculty members, and staff to increase understanding, including tools to support community members in need, and create more empathy for those who may not have experienced or known others who have mental health conditions.

These are only a few suggestions -- so much more can and should be done. Therefore, I would challenge us in higher education to lead the way in making sure mental health is an integral part of our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Because openness, dialogue and knowledge are core values that define our institutions, we are distinctly positioned to encourage conversation that can not only change lives but also save them.

Bio

Stephanie Robertson is director of community engagement and inclusion at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

 

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