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Mental Health in Higher Education

My name is Colleen Etman, and I am mad.

Not like, angry – though I am, about a lot of things, a lot of the time. I am mad, as in madness.

(I’d like to be very clear here that this is a label I have chosen for myself, as something that I and other activists have chosen to reclaim. Do not call people mad. See my previous article on self-identification re: labeling in case you need a refresher about calling people what they want to be called and not calling people things they have not chosen to be called.)

Yes, I am mad. I accept this about myself, I have made peace with this, I am often even somewhat proud of this – not proud to be mad, I suppose, but proud of what I can do with this, proud of who I can be. In spite of and because of the madness. I am mad and I am a student, I am a teacher, I am a friend, I am a mentor.

Now, I am mad and I am a doctor. Those two things go very hand-in-hand.

On March 15 I defended my dissertation – and passed – and became a doctor. A massive accomplishment! The culmination of not just five years of schooling (or many more years, depending on how you look at it), but a lifelong love of learning and literature.

This also took place in the midst of a complete mental health crisis. Naturally, this semester has been a bit stressful. I am on the job market, looking for a Real Person Job, not a student job, and it’s very intimidating (and dispiriting). I am recovering from major surgery. And, of course, I was preparing my final draft of my dissertation and getting ready for the defense. Of course I cracked.

First I stopped sleeping. Well, I was still sleeping. But every night I’d wake up ridiculously early – for me, at least. I’d go to bed around 1 or 2AM and wake up just a few hours later. I swear, I woke up at 5:14AM on the dot three or four days in a row. After a few weeks of getting remarkably less sleep than usual, I started having tactile hallucinations, which I didn’t even know were a thing. I’ve been calling them the heebie jeebies, because it sounds more fun that way. Just little moments where I’m certain things are crawling on me. (And I have a bug phobia, so you can imagine my delight at this new development.)

Then, a week before my defense, it all went haywire. It started with a radio – an old-timey radio playing behind me. I knew there was no radio, so I was pretty certain I was experiencing my first auditory hallucination. Fun. Over the course of the weekend, I would spiral out into several more auditory hallucinations – the final and most fun being a child screaming – though thankfully no visual ones. I was also experiencing paranoia and delusions, which meant I was certain my mom kept sneaking into my house, and at one point that my shoes were fighting her. My mom got several concerned phone calls that weekend. And finally, when I could sleep, which wasn’t very often, I was having graphic nightmares. I had to enact my emergency contact protocols with my friends to make sure that I was safe, because I wasn’t sure that I was a safe person at the moment.

But I made it through the weekend. Come Monday morning, I called my therapist at Columbia Area Mental Health and we did crisis intervention, and I also spoke to my psychiatrist as well. That week I would have two appointments with my psychiatrist and two formal appointments with my therapist in addition to several unscheduled phone calls. I was on crisis alert with the clinic. But by Thursday, I was (relatively) stable, and by Friday afternoon, I was a doctor.

The thing is, no one expects a doctor to have problems like this. Oh, a doctor? You must really have your life together. Here’s the truth: I am an absolute mess. I have a laundry list of mental health diagnoses. I am on three mood stabilizers. My therapist has my phone number memorized and has met my cat.

Higher education is full of mental health issues and it isn’t talked about enough. Because if it isn’t talked about enough at my level – the graduate students and professors who teach undergrads, how are those undergrads supposed to feel supported when they have their own mental health issues? Undergrads have it rough. You’re at the age where many mental illnesses first start to manifest, and you’re in new and strange and stressful situations, and you’re, usually, navigating life on your own for the first time. Everything is too much, all the time. Is it any wonder that college students often see tanking mental health in their time on campus?

Simple things like grace with attendance or late work can go a long way to making a student feel less overwhelmed when their mental health is already doing a number on their brain.

Colleen Etman

There needs to be a reckoning in higher education. When I teach my courses, I try to be cognizant of the mental health needs of my students in the ways I wish my professors had been with me. Simple things like grace with attendance or late work can go a long way to making a student feel less overwhelmed when their mental health is already doing a number on their brain. I’m pushing for these policies to become more welcome in higher education – but it’s going to be a long road.

In the meantime, what can students do? I’m not here to push mindfulness on you – though it does have benefits (or so my therapist keeps telling me). Accessing resources available to you is the number one way you can take charge of your mental health. Mental illness can make you feel powerless, so reaching out to treatment options is a good first step. Talking to your professors about your needs might seem intimidating, but you’d be surprised how many professors are going through or have gone through similar issues themselves. And, if it’s something you feel up to and so inclined, speak up. Become an advocate for better resources, better communication, better respect for mental health and mental illness.

Mental illness is scary, frustrating, disheartening… but not overpowering. I became a mad doctor (don’t worry, not a mad scientist). What can you become?


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.