An Open Letter to Kenyon: On Being an ‘Inadequate’ Performer of Mental Illness
When I asked you for help, you asked me for evidence.
I have Bipolar II disorder. A quick internet search will reveal that this disorder is characterized by frequent cycles of deep depression and hypomania. It’s one of the hard-hitters. One of those disorders that people cringe at. It must be managed with the proverbial ‘big guns’ of psychotropic drugs–the ones that sometimes deprive you of all emotions–not just the bad ones. In addition to Bipolar II disorder, I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some days are simply unbearable. Some weeks are simply not livable.
I also have guinea pigs. They’re my ResLife-approved “emotional support” critters and likely the reason that I’m still at Kenyon. I have and have always had a tremendous affection for animals. As a lifelong equestrian and an owner of many dogs, cats, horses, ducks, a miniature donkey, and now guinea pigs, I’ve had the privilege to discover that animals are my most effective therapeutic resource. Recently, my therapist recommended that I pursue permission to obtain an emotional support dog as a means of combatting my depression, my social anxiety, and my tendency to isolate–some of the most damaging and pervasive sub-symptoms of Bipolar II. She wanted the dog to be a buffer of sorts–to force me to go outside, and to take the pressure off of me in my interactions with others on my worst days.
I submitted documentation of my diagnosis from both my therapist and psychiatrist to ResLife, and was directed to Student Accessibility and Support Services to make my request. I was unaware that I would be subjected to an interrogation by the director–that the support I sought would be anything but accessible.
After arriving 15 minutes late to our meeting, the director sat with her back to me, curtly asking preliminary questions while struggling to find my documentation. She wanted to know why I had never requested accommodation before, how I had made it this far in my Kenyon career. What was I doing post-graduation? Why would a dog help me anyways? If I didn’t have a suitable dog already, how did I know a new dog would be supportive? Did I know how cold it gets in January here? People don’t go outside at that time of the year, so how would that help my isolation and social anxiety?
When I asked about my academic concerns, the director shrugged and told me there was nothing she could do. Extended test time wouldn’t help, and evidently, that was all she had to offer. She said she could talk to my faculty members. She didn’t. The conversation ended with the assurance that the director would speak with my therapist and psychiatrist for ‘more information.’ In other words, accommodation required a more substantial burden of proof than the diagnosis and my words could provide.
I left the SASS office, eyes wide. Frustration would be accompanied by tears. Great, I thought, I love crying. I dialed my mom’s number as I emerged from Olin. She didn’t believe me, mom. I tried to hide behind my sunglasses, head down and could barely talk through the tears. When I finally collected myself, I reasoned that, perhaps I had been over-sensitive. Nonetheless, I spiraled into several days of deep depression.
A week or so went by, and the director finally reached out to my therapist. As far as I know, she never contacted my psychiatrist. When I arrived at my next appointment, we discussed their conversation. The director hadn’t believed me that the disorder could be debilitating. She needed to hear it from a professional that didn’t have the disorder. The director said she had a pile of similar accommodation requests on her desk, but I was the only student to request a dog. We’re setting precedent, she said. You can only imagine how comforting it is to know that your mental health comes second to policy. The director asked, Why doesn’t she just bring her horse to school? in a massively classist assumption about my economic capacity to afford to do so. And perhaps her worst remark, this time concerning my appearance and wardrobe: She just looks too nice to be depressed. Read: she is an inadequate performer of her mental illness.
Kenyon, you should be ashamed. Mental illness is not a performance. It is my lived reality.
In an article for The Guardian in January, SE Smith discussed the pervasive myth regarding the necessary ‘performance’ of mental health. She writes, “When I’m having a depressive episode, I’m not walking around in tattered black clothes, weeping and wailing.” She continues:
Yet I feel a strange conflicting pressure. On the one hand, I feel like I need to engage in a sort of relentless performative sadness to be taken seriously, for people to understand that I really am depressed and that each day – each moment of each day – is a struggle for me, that even when I am happy, I am still fighting the monster. I feel like I need to darken everything around me, to stop communicating with the world, to stop publishing anything, to just stop. Because that way I will appear suitably, certifiably sad, and thus, depressed – and then maybe people will recognise that I’m depressed and perhaps they’ll even offer support and assistance.
Though the Student Accessibility and Support Services’ webpage purports to provide support for all types of disabilities–mental or physical, they treated me dismissively and with suspicion. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bipolar II disorder (among other psychiatric disorders) is considered to be a disability. However, my interaction with the SASS office resulted in neither support nor accommodation. They denied my request. I encourage you to peruse the SASS page on the Kenyon website. You’ll find that their treatment of my case is utterly antithetical to their mission statement.
I will not apologize for dressing well and succeeding academically in spite of all my mental illness. I will not walk into any office on campus and weep while I describe the destruction it has wreaked on my life. I encourage the Kenyon community to think deeply about the way it treats mental illness and whom it allows to handle such accommodation requests. My experience indicated that the director had no or little training in such issues. Unsurprisingly, she succumbed to the normalization and stereotyping of mental illness. As a result, I maintain that her persistent disbelief in the severity of my disorder and ultimate decision to put precedent before my well-being is actively harmful.
We might do well to conclude this letter with a call to arms of sorts, a challenge if you will. Mental illness will never easily conform to bureaucratic standardization. So, Kenyon, I challenge you to adequately and respectfully accommodate all disabilities–even the invisible ones. The burden of proof is now in your hands.