By Marjorie Baldwin
A recent survey reports that 47% of adults living with schizophrenia drop out of college, compared to the 27% college dropout rate in the U.S. overall. Another study reports that students diagnosed with bipolar disorder are 70% more likely to drop out of college than students with no psychiatric diagnosis.
My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his junior year of college. I was devastated by what I perceived to be the loss of hope for his future, but he was determined to return to school and complete his degree. His university, which had been eager to help him withdraw when he became ill, was most unwilling to help him re-enroll after his symptoms were under control. When I called the Disability Services Office for help, a staff member told me, “Your son got in trouble…”
I responded, “My son did not get in trouble, my son got sick.”
This kind of negative attitude from a university is tragic. Many young people with schizophrenia or other serious mental health conditions are perfectly capable of completing a college education. There is no reason for universities to discriminate against students living with mental illness—in fact, such discrimination is against the law.
It is the role of university faculty to enable the success of their students, not to impede it. Rather than assume a student living with schizophrenia will never return to campus, a university should:
Unfortunately, most universities, and society at large, have not adopted such enlightened policies towards students living with mental illness. Until they do, parents have to be the advocates for their children who want to return to school. Rather than losing hope, as I did in the beginning, here’s what parents can do:
When my son prepared to return to school, his psychiatrist approved readmission on the condition that he take a reduced course load. An unenlightened staff member in the Disability Services Office told me, “If your son is not prepared to take a full-time load, he shouldn’t be coming back to school at all.” That position is illegal under the ADA: A reduced course load is a reasonable accommodation for students living with mental illness.
Returning to school has both short and long-term benefits for students, like my son, who experience a psychotic break in the midst of their college career. In the short run, returning to classes provides structure for their days, re-establishes their identity as a student, and helps restore their self-esteem. In the long run, completing their degree helps counteract the stigma that persons with mental illness are incompetent, and increases the likelihood of stable employment. Best of all, as my son said when he graduated,
“Mom, whatever happens now, they can’t take this away from me.”
Marjorie L. Baldwin is a health economist in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and mother of a young man with schizophrenia. Her recently published book, Beyond Schizophrenia: Living and Working with a Serious Mental Illness, describes her efforts to help her son recover, together with the latest research on education and employment for persons with SMI.
Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on NAMI.org in August 2016.
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