Press "Enter" to skip to content

The real source of “Stigma:” schools, mental health, and neurodivergent

I recently discovered I have a mental disorder.

The truth is, though, this isn’t my first rodeo with the mental health industry. I received my first diagnosis when I was in third grade. It was for something called “nonverbal learning disorder.” Apparently, I was reading too early, socializing too late and doing math… poorly. The following year, I was diagnosed with depression. Then dysgraphia (difficulty handwriting), dyscalculia (difficulty doing math) and insomnia (you know this one). But it wasn’t over. We visited an assortment of clinics, speaking to any doctor who wanted to take a whack at fixing me. Did I really have Asperger’s Syndrome? Was I eating too much gluten? Did I just need to straighten up and fly right? Doctors passed, fumbled and passed my case again like a football.

Here’s a symptom of having a mental disorder that nobody ever warns you about: you will never be treated the same way again. My K-8 teachers all rushed to wrangle me. There were the outwardly sweet ones who got a little trigger-happy with “therapeutic” time-outs; the ones who clearly thought I was a psychopath and enjoyed telling me in trembling voices that I was “just a little different;” and the ones who resorted to public humiliation and private yelling. You can probably guess which ones I liked least.

Outside of class, I remained a patient. If I was very happy, then I was “manic.” If I was not very happy, I was depressed — something must have been wrong with my meds. I started shoving Cheez-Its like a madman to calm my feelings of inferiority, which made me pack on the pounds fast. Of course, this precipitated further doctors’ visits, where it was theorized that I might have Cushing’s Syndrome (hormonal imbalance causing weight gain). The more my school treated me like a freak, the more I felt like a freak and the freakier the diagnoses became. The vicious cycle continued until I finally gave in and withdrew.

But then I got to high school. Removed from the constraints of childhood, it 

turned out that I could, in fact, do math, make friends and regulate myself just as well as anyone. (I still can’t handwrite. That one was actually true.) I got some good grades, some better friends and no longer had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) by junior year. Then, I made it off the waitlist at the prestigious and deliciously obscure Carleton College. I was on top of the world. More than that, I was finally normal!

My first term at Carleton was one of the happiest times of my life. I was overjoyed to be exploring a beautiful campus, meeting incredible people and taking fascinating courses.

But my feelings changed as quickly as the season. Each day’s pile of readings lost their meanings — no matter how much I did, I felt empty-handed in discussions. Classes became never-ending and torturous; I found myself squirming, squinting and doing anything but paying attention. I could not balance my home and academic life nor tolerate the breakneck pace of Carleton trimesters. Tiptoeing outside my academic comfort zone caused grades so unfathomably low that one professor told me my test scores were the worst he’d seen in years. They were the worst I’d seen in years too.

Here I was, formerly “a pleasure to have in class,” now apparently lazy and ungrateful. Full circle. I became contemptuous of virtually everything but hated myself most of all, spending my days moping around in solitude and quietly resenting everyone who seemed to be having a better time than me. Intrusive thoughts buzzed and scrabbled through my brain as though it was made of honeycomb. I spent a year and a half in self-serving misery before finally caving and calling my psychiatrist.

Turns out I have ADHD.

I’ve been on medication for about two weeks now. It was sobering how much the diagnosis explained. As much as I feel like I’m back under the microscope, hyper-aware of whatever “symptoms” I might be displaying, I finally feel engaged again. There’s a bit of hollowness, too: now that I want to embrace everything I’ve spent half my college career avoiding, I can’t help but reflect on how little time I have left. But I’m glad I still have time.

When I was a kid, the only time I ever heard talk of mental health in school was when I overheard it. ADHD was Your Kid Can’t Sit Still Disorder; depression was Your Kid Is Ungrateful Disorder; Autism was Your Kid Is Literally Fucking Insane Disorder. Suddenly, however, educational institutions seem willing, almost eager, to address these topics and the difficulties they bring. Their rhetoric betrays how little has actually changed. We often hear lamentations of the “stigma” that accompanies mental disorders. When it comes time to define what this “stigma” looks like and where, exactly, it comes from, schools dodge the question with choreographed deftness. They leave this apparent mystery in our hands. Does “stigma” condense in the air like water vapor? Are we awful, uneducated humans simply born to stigmatize? No. In my experience, the institutions meant to educate us churn out “stigma” like a factory smokestack.

Though neurodivergent people are regularly told we’re different, we often live similar stories. I’ve spoken to lots of people like myself — people with ADHD, autism, speech impediments and more — and they are just as qualified to write this article as I am. Ask any of us and we’ll tell you about the erudite experts who handed out labels and pills as though we were trick-or-treaters waiting to drop our costumes. We’ll tell you about the power-drunk teachers who weaponized rules designed to punish us, then whipped around and praised our classmates for not being us. We’ll tell you about the sugary would-be saviors who wanted us quarantined and our diseases cured. We’ll tell you about how we pushed through that stigma only to run into an understated yet equally pernicious second wave.

While one encounters fewer college professors who use their institutional power to bully, colleges are nevertheless not built for the neurodiverse. Students must spend the bulk of their days — a recent study found an average of around 12 hours — either sitting and listening, sitting and reading, sitting and typing or all simultaneously. They must juggle their myriad assignments with job-searching, networking, maintaining their spaces, sustaining their financial well-being, exhaustively scheduling each day, sleeping and competing in the never-ending free-for-all that is college socialization. Colleges expect us to sacrifice routine, predictability and even our physical well-being for the sake of grades. We can always develop healthier habits but our habits cannot make our lives healthy.

Should students seek counseling or assistance, they are likely to come up empty-handed: Carleton has five mental health counselors, one case manager, one psychiatrist, one academic skills coach and 2,046 students, which meshes well with America’s sorry counselor-to-student ratio. Is it any wonder that 54% of autistic college students are suicidal and college students with ADHD are four times more likely to attempt suicide? We have spent our lives in environments antithetical to our being.

Public discourse around mental health now veers into bizarrely menial territory. We seem to be blaming the individual, playing meaningless games of linguistic tug-of-war (“autistic people” or “people with autism”?) to decide which permutation of words creates the most stigma. But we cannot combat stigma by flicking vague, lazy talking points at each other. I’ve decided to attach my name to this article because I have faith that the truths I have revealed to you will not change the way you approach me. You did not open the festering wound of American ableism — institutions did. And if we do not see sweeping educational reform soon, schools will remain among the most harmful.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.