March 14, 2010

Letter to the Editor: Reading the signs of mental illness

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To the Editor:

Re: “Matthew Zika ’11 Confirmed Dead, Police Investigation Continues,” News, March 12

The urgency in the tone of President Skorton’s March 12 e-mail to students regarding the third student death in the past month illustrates the need for more proactive measures to be put in place to prevent such tragedies. As a former administrative teaching assistant in a few undergraduate courses in the AEM program, I remember receiving an e-mail partway through the semester advising that I look through student records and try to identify any students who may have experienced a sudden drop in grades or completion of assignments and reach out to these students, as such performance may be indicative of greater problems. Being able to successfully identify a student who in fact was in need of help getting through an overwhelming situation in her life simply by paying attention to her grades was one of the most impactful things I believe I did in my role as a TA that semester.

As a student whose academic career has been greatly impacted by mental health problems, I have become all too familiar with how lightly these requests to evaluate student performance as a means to identify those in need of help are taken by most faculty and TAs. In the multiple semesters I have either had to withdraw fully from school or assume a part-time course load as a result of my conditions, not once did any of my professors or TAs identify me as a student of concern, even though I was fully aware of how clear I was making my distress with decreased attendance, not turning in assignments and more. Feeling like no one cared or would take the time to even notice there was a problem only intensified the desolation I already felt during those times.

If, as an academic community, we paid more attention to the telltale signs that depression, anxiety and anguish provide, we could prevent future tragedies from occurring and cultivate a more caring campus. While we cannot know if we could have prevented these recent deaths with the suggested increased scrutiny of individual academic situations, we can, and should, take charge of what has become a rash of students feeling like they have nowhere and no one to turn to and give them hope to live another day.

Michelle Gonzalez ’10