Bridging Disability and Mental Illness

Visiting Disablity Studies lecturer Lydia X. Z. Brown, otherwise known as Autistic Hoya, defines ableism as the “oppression, prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against Disabled people,” in addition to the belief that non-Disabled people’s lives are superior, have a better quality of life, or have lives that are more valuable than Disabled people’s lives.

While many community members recognize Tufts as a physically inaccessible campus, the effects of other types of institutional ableism remain more difficult to distinguish. The policies of Tufts’s support services stem from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). First introduced in 1990, the ADA was the first major civil rights legislation to prohibit ableist discrimination against individuals with Disabilities. The ADA defines Disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” including but not limited to activities such as learning, communicating, and working. Tufts Student Accessibility Services (SAS) adheres to the same definition and provides support to students at Tufts with documented disabilities. Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) also provides support for students with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorders, and anxiety disorders, some of which overlap with psychiatric disabilities. A quick glance at CMHS’ website, however, reveals that CMHS does not explicitly name disability as a category of service. This gap in definition suggests a larger disconnect between mental illness and disability and points to the many challenges Disabled students face.

Dr. Julie Jampel, a Staff Psychologist and Director of Training at CMHS, serves as the office liaison to SAS. She and Kirsten Behling, Director of SAS, said in a joint statement, “CMHS and SAS work very closely together. We introduce students to each other’s services when appropriate and work to make sure each student receives help depending on their individual needs.” They added, “An important distinction is that the two offices serve students differently. SAS facilitates accommodations for students with disabilities in any area of their Tufts experience.” CMHS also provides services like short-term therapy, group therapy, and consultation, amongst other clinical services.

Jampel’s role in connecting these offices helps bridge the gap between disability and mental health, but the categorical distance remains pervasive and powerful. According to Brown, dividing mental illness from disability is an ableist way of discounting the real lived experiences of people with mental illness. Brown said, “Mental illness is considered separate from a ‘real’ disability for 80 million different ableist reasons––one being that ‘disability is only physical, and it’s only something I can see.’”

MJ Griego, a junior, is one student who lives the experience of this disconnect. Griego deals with “anxiety, depression and a trauma-based illness.” Currently figuring out whether they have a physical disability as well, Griego is also still recovering from recent surgery. “The biggest challenge I had,” they said, “was the semester I was depressed with suicidal intentions, when CMHS kept telling me to use ‘tips and tricks’ for mental health.” Although mental illness is a disability and warrants certain accommodations, Griego was never directed to SAS for these supportive services. Griego said, “[CMHS] never mentioned any resources for getting academic accommodations or for taking a medical leave. I didn’t know about any of it, and I failed two classes. I’m still trying to get [these classes] off my record due to CMHS mistreating me, three years later.”

A Tufts senior, who asked to remain anonymous, deals with clinical PTSD with post-traumatic panic attacks. In her opinion, “Many spaces, such as Tufts, re-perpetuate stigma towards…Disabled or mentally ill people by invalidating the seriousness or legitimacy of their disability or mental illness and only considering physical disabilities to be legitimate.” She still struggles to determine whether her mental illness qualifies as a disability, and the reproduction of ableist ideas on this campus and societally only exacerbates that difficulty.

Jampel and Behling explained that “only a subset of students with mental health conditions are considered to have a disability.” It’s part of their job to discern the varying needs of a student who might be “upset” or “having roommate conflicts,” versus a student whose mental health warrants disability accommodations.

Sometimes, though, ableist conceptions about mental health can lead to counselors underestimating the seriousness of students’ concerns, leaving them abandoned and underserved. Asia Acevedo, who faced many academic challenges because of her mental illness, had never considered academic accommodations for her mental health, despite seeing a rotation of CMHS clinicians since her freshman year and reporting that she had not gone to some classes as a result. She said, “Having to work on top of going to class and maintaining a decent GPA really takes a toll on my sleep schedule, which in turn triggers a lot of stress and anxiety that often manifests in completely unproductive dissociative and/or depressive episodes. It’s really, really difficult to balance my mental illnesses on top of normal college concerns.”

Referencing a time when they had reached out to their professors about their physical ailment and mental disability, Griego echoed similar sentiments. They said, “When I sent out an email about surgery recovery and depression to all my professors this semester, most people only responded about surgery. Tufts professors need to be better about people not being in class.”

For those students who pursue disability accommodations from SAS, proper documentation is required. Providing documentation to prove the legitimacy of one’s disability can be challenging, and the requirements often pose a major barrier to low-income students in particular who would otherwise benefit from SAS resources.

Senior Ray Bernoff deals with mental health concerns and a mobility disability that “makes walking, bending, and standing painful.” He explained that, “the process of gathering the necessary documentation from all my doctors and specialists is such a labor, especially without frequent, easy, [or] affordable access to a car.”

Additionally, even if students can produce proper documentation, there is no guarantee of services. According to the SAS handbook, “a diagnosis of a disability does not, in and of itself, meet the definition of a disability necessitating reasonable accommodations under the applicable law.”

Still, when students do choose to pursue the potential for disability accommodations, the process of acquiring and communicating those accommodations can be confusing and ultimately harmful. For instance, the previously mentioned anonymous senior recounted the time she sought academic accommodations through CMHS for severe mental health issues. “I suddenly could not leave my room, eat in the dining hall, go to class, or remember fully what had happened to me,” she said. Her CMHS therapist assured her that he had communicated to her academic dean about the accommodations she needed for midterms week, but for reasons unknown, her dean failed to let her professors know of the situation, while she continued to constantly panic.

She said, “[My dean] insinuated that I was irresponsible when I told her I needed support and extensions for all my classes instead of just one, never mind that I was unable to leave my room or eat. My experience with CMHS connecting to my dean made me feel as though I had made something up or lied, as if I was ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘imagining things,’ or ‘weak.’”

When talking about mental illness treatment, Brown said, “No matter what, psych[ologically] Disabled people get screwed over. We are just told constantly that who we are in the world, how we’re perceived in the world, even what we know about ourselves is fake, that it’s not real, that you’re making it up, you’re faking it.”

Bernoff said, “Tufts is not designed for Disabled students of any kind. SAS is doing its best to ameliorate the effects of an institution that was never intended for anyone like me and other Disabled students, and its best is far from being enough.” At this point, Bernoff has not received any meaningful or sustainable support from SAS nor CMHS. “I just suck it up,” he says, “periodically do physical therapy and courses of steroids, and wait to graduate.”

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