More Than An Excuse

Although Graham House serves an important purpose in the Andover community by providing a space that focuses specifically on student mental health, its current conceptual and physical distance from Isham Health Center implies an improperly wide separation between mental and physical health. Building the Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center is a strong step towards bridging this gap. Nevertheless, part of the issue is an ambiguity in school policy concerning Andover students suffering from various mental illnesses.

I have written before in The Phillipian’s editorials about the deeply distressing language that the Blue Book ascribes to issues of mental health. But despite my efforts, and despite the many courageous articles surrounding mental health that characterized the Commentary section of The Phillipian during a large portion of my tenure as an Editor, there are still discrepancies over school protocol related to mental and physical illness.
The Blue Book encourages students to put their class work ahead of their mental health unless it is a emergency, stating “students may schedule an appointment…for a time that does not conflict with a class period.” On the other hand, the section concerning Isham emphasizes that “students are welcome at all times,” before mentioning as an afterthought that students should try not to come down during a class period.

While there is no perfect solution, the community at large would benefit significantly from a clear-cut policy that explicitly enables Isham to excuse students from classes in instances when they are experiencing anxiety or depression. A commonly voiced opposition to this proposal is that students may feign depression or anxiety in order to take advantage of the new policy. Andover’s student body, faculty and medical staff, however, are no doubt aware that students can just as easily fake a physical ailment to skip class. But still, Isham does not turn any potentially sick students away on the grounds of uncertainty or suspicion: to do so would be medically irresponsible to the point of utter negligence, potentially worsening the student’s illness. Mental illness should be treated with the same gravity as any virus: treatment of anxiety or depression is not something that should be postponed to a student’s next free period.

Because Isham is much more accessible to the physically ill than the mentally ill, students often find it more acceptable to invent a physical ailment as a front for debilitating anxiety or varying states of depression in order to escape day-to-day pressures. This deception, however, does nothing to solve the larger issue. It does not allow students to be honest about their circumstances. It does not provide the Isham nurses, whose efforts I wholeheartedly admire, with the insight they need to help us recover and heal.

No student with an illness should be required to attend classes when the work may impede their recovery, and the current uncertainty surrounding mental health policies implicitly prioritizes students with easily diagnosed physical ailments such as a cold or a fever – who know exactly where to receive assistance and excused time for recovery – over students suffering from the complex and destructive forces of depression and anxiety. A chemical imbalance in our brain should not be seen as less problematic as, say, meningitis.

Allowing students to be temporarily excused from class for mental illness will improve and destigmatize mental health on campus, removing a layer of duplicity from the common Isham visit. Many will undoubtedly consider this strategy to be lenient, naïve or susceptible to student misuse – but seeing as it is already the community’s general approach to bodily illness, Andover needs to address the mental health of its students with the same care and priority it already grants our stomachaches or bouts of flu.

When it comes to mental health, our school needs a different protocol, and the students need to know about it. Until this change occurs, our community is failing itself. The words “I am having difficulty coping with my anxiety,” or “I have been feeling very depressed this week” or “I don’t feel emotionally capable of attending my classes” should be the only words one should have to say in order to be given the time needed to recover from bouts of depression or panic before returning to classes. It will require a difficult sort of honesty from students suffering from mental illnesses – but this is an honesty that we are capable of demonstrating and more than willing to prove.

In the nexus of complex and oft-connected issues that surround late adolescence, there are precious few opportunities to enact simple, effective and overwhelmingly positive change. I believe that this is one of these rare opportunities. A clear Isham policy that excuses students from classes in order to give them time to work through anxiety attacks, serious bouts of depression and so on has the potential to greatly reduce our community rates of self-harm – a shocking 13 percent according to The Phillipian’s 2014 State of the Academy. In light of these climbing rates of mental illness on campus and the slew of personal appeals already published in The Phillipian over this past year, our situation becomes extremely clear: if a solution such as this exists, then none of us can excuse our community’s inaction any longer.