The Antidote to Stockholm Syndrome: the Confluence of Academics, Mental Health and Stress

By Guest Contributor

I was accepted into Middlebury as a Top 100 Applicant (a now discontinued program) with a 32 on the ACT and a 3.91 GPA. I served for three years on Community Council, one year on the Academic Appeals Board, two years as a Residential Advisor of an academic interest house; I committed time to various organizations on campus and I also helped to research and write confidential briefings for President Liebowitz. However, it’s likely that I would choose not to casually share this information with anyone. My justification is not for a lack of pride in my previous commitments, or because I consider them relatively insignificant historical details — which I do — but rather because they are from a different lived reality. I am a student who lives with schizophrenia and depression.

The path to realization and acknowledgment of my mental health has not been easy or short. As a consequence of early suicidal ideation, I had my first appointment with a psychiatrist at the age of eight. I would not receive a diagnosis of depression until the 9th grade. Eventually, during my second year here at Middlebury, I received an added diagnosis of inattentive-type ADD. Finally, I hoped, life would start to make sense. And, for a while, it did… until it didn’t. I withdrew from school only a month away from my graduation.

I no longer remember the exact “official” reasons I provided to my dean for wanting to leave — my grades didn’t preclude the possibility of graduation — but the mind never forgets the various contours it is forced into as a result of our lived experiences. When I packed up my truck and hit the highway, I just knew that on the other end of my journey would be a life filled with freedom and significance. If I had been honest with my dean, I would have said that I believed that I was God and that I needed to embark upon a grand journey in order to learn how to properly fulfill this newly discovered identity. This belief had begun to slowly creep into my mind about a little over a year before my withdrawal. However, such honesty was not possible at that time because I couldn’t quite grasp or translate all of the many violently whirling pieces in my mind. The psychosis had set in.

While many of the events during my “journey” would naturally, of course, confirm my belief in self-divinity, God would call in sick most days. If I would overhear a passer-by describing a horrible experience, I would mumble my apologies since I was unable to do my job. This time off was heavily influenced by my inability to maintain a steady job. I worked brief stints as a slot machine technician, executive housekeeper and general manager of a bar; I’m not a good technician, housekeeper or bartender. And because I began to believe that someone I knew, or even the Devil, was spying on me through my computer and smartphone, I stopped using those devices to communicate with others.  My fear became so pervasive that I lost my job and became homeless. I even refused to use my debit card in case my location would be betrayed to this spy in my midst.

Even to this day, my ever-present paranoia and this particularly refractory delusion cause me to face great difficulty in performing exchanges over modern communicative technology. While I do use a phone, it’s decidedly low-tech. Phone calls and texts are kept to an absolute and slight minimum, respectively. Facebook, Twitter, email and other entities of the sort are eschewed. My dean and I had to devise a compromise in which I would create an email which only he and my professors would know. It’s far from a perfect plan — many thanks to my professors for so kindly and understandingly emailing that address instead of the school’s — because it’s still, after all, an email. Thus, my dean and one of my professors graciously inform me in person of issues that need attention.

However, while homeless and penniless, I would roam the streets looking for loose change on the ground in order to get by. I’d then take that change — rarely more than a dollar or two — to the tourist casino so that I could pretend to play the penny machine at one cent a bet since that was the only way I could receive free 8 oz. bottles of water. When the occasion would arise for a shower, or if the outside became too unbearable, I would find some random man with a place of his own to sleep with. As Tina Turner sings, “What’s love got to do with it?” This period lasted for a brief spell until my mom was able to locate me hundreds of miles away from home. Fortunately, she brought me back to live with her since I was in no state to care for myself.

My main company after my return home was in the form of two dead people: Bob and Ursula. Bob possessed the awesome ability to control my thoughts, making me uncover memories that I believed were long locked away or forgotten. Ursula, conversely, always remained as still and quiet as a sentinel; her presence would tell me when to hide from the increasing number of people whom I knew to be surveilling me. Or, during one particular night home alone, her appearance alerted me to the demon in my backyard. In a hell storm I guided my German Shepherd and Ursula into my vehicle so that I could go to meet my mom, yet such was my haste that I didn’t even realize until it was too late that I needed gas and had forgotten my wallet at home.

These ongoing events repeated far too often in eerily similar ways eventually influenced my mom to have me committed to a psychiatric hospital. In 2014, I stayed in the psych ward for twenty-eight days total. I would then spend several months in and out of partial hospitalization programs. In the end, however, the battery of antipsychotics that I was forced to take only helped to the extent that they allowed me regain a weak grip on reality. My grasp of fact versus fiction has strengthened over time to where it currently stands now, yet it appears that my psychosis is a bit more durable than I would have hoped for. To that extent, the stress from everyday living and academics has allowed for a nearly incessant chatter in my mind. I also experience a rather resilient and perpetual paranoia caused by a litany of items.

My current reality as a once-again student is significantly defined through my mental health struggles. I am no longer the student who applied to Middlebury many years ago. My mind see-saws from existing as a fraction of its former self unable to think as quickly or nimbly to not being able to consider any new information at all. I have lost my passion for indiscriminate learning. Sometimes during the moments when I choose to speak out in discussion, I am also no longer responding to the class when I have stopped looking at the individuals surrounding me. Properly understood, I am fortunate in that the chatter in my mind is relatively benign — yet the perpetual nature can be debilitating — and is considerate enough to maintain relevance to most topics at hand.

As you can imagine, the combination of these various mental activities can produce long delays in my submission of graded assignments. It is quite embarrassing to never be able to turn in work on time. I also refrain from drinking, partying, going out or any other variety of normal stress relief avenues for a person my age because I simply do not have the time with the constant chase of one or two weeks past deadlines. Furthermore, I easily invest more than ninety percent of my time to schoolwork, but it remains a tediously slow process. However, I am quite fortunate in that my professors have gradually acquired an understanding — though no clear details of any specifics — of the particular difficulties I encounter on a daily basis. While my ADA certification states that extensions are to be on a case-by-case basis, which is a blanket guideline for all who have ADA certification, they have realized that hard deadlines or repeated requests for extensions will not rectify my situation. They have tacitly allowed late submission of my work — or, in one instance which truly inspired sincere gratitude on my part, my self-initiated next day written post-exam clarifications which were only meant to inform of my mistakes were added to supplement an exam because I either failed to answer questions in-between other prompts or provided answers to others in somewhat bizarre locations — but it does not in any manner guarantee my success since I must still produce work that is translatable to some grade.

While my professors are naturally kind-hearted people who take their callings seriously as scholars and teachers of students, I would not be in a position to capitalize on said accommodations if it were not for the advocacy of my dean and an associate dean of the college. Whether it was the hard conversations I was unable or unwilling to have with a professor or perhaps my ritual of doing tests runs of conversations that I need to have with a professor for a given situation, they have helped to ensure a high conversion rate in my favor. If stress or mental health issues are affecting your performance, talk to your deans. The system works — especially when you give it no choice but to work.

To that end, I would like to say that I fully support the student body’s current push to encourage the faculty in effectively acknowledging and supporting the lived realities of how mental health and stress affects academics. However, while it is oft cited that the majority of modern-day college professors are politically liberal, the faculty as a collective is as conservative as the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy. The changes you seek will take many years to come to fruition. The best method, besides allowing your deans to engage in one-on-one’s with your professors, is to break up the plan into multi-year segments and focus on what you can accomplish now. The answers to your questions will take as long, if not longer, as the six-plus year approval for even a pilot Pass/D/Fail program. Or the four year effort to have students represented at the Board of Trustees. You won’t see the benefits of your current endeavors during your time at Middlebury, unfortunately, if you seek full comprehensive reform.

In a quick word to the faculty, I pray that you realize that the students’ experiences regarding mental health and stress are quite real. For example, how many students do you have like me? While I described some of my presenting issues, they are not readily evident unless I choose to explain them. Statistics would dictate that here at the college, there are between 10 to 25 students who fall somewhere on the schizophrenia spectrum, 135 to 250 who experience major depressive disorder, fifty to eighty-five with bipolar disorder and approximately 450 who experience an anxiety disorder at any given moment. This list is not exhaustive.

As for stress, we all must schlep it along every day because of the myriad of external and internal expectations placed upon us affects everyone. It may be an easy argument to make that time investments like extracurricular activities or Facebook are the root cause of the student body’s stress, but this can’t possibly be the answer when these very same activities are what the students choose as avenues to destress.

In order to more fully realize the ethos of an education at a small liberal arts school and to provide needed relief to the students’ lived experiences of mental health and stress, please consider the following: offer students the option to use your first name, provide a home/cell number or even Twitter handle for facilitated communication, get to know your students through individual or group meals, teach more co-taught classes so that you experience more outside of your own scholarly comfort zone, eliminate deadlines as they are arbitrary and force easy learning or path of least resistance when completing assignments, provide a clear grading rubric on the syllabus that is resistant to change, allow students the opportunity to redo graded papers/tests and then average the two grades so that the focus is more centered on the goal of learning and don’t forget to sincerely smile and greet the class in some manner.​

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