The Icarus Project
The New York Times Article and Multiple Avenues of Access
The New York Times is currently doing a series of articles on “troubled children” which focuses on the “increasing number of children whose problems are diagnosed as mental disorders.” The most recent article is called “Off to College on Their Own, Shadowed by Mental Illness.” The article is about the difficult transition from high school to college for students with “serious mental illnesses.” According to the article “…for the increasing number of young people who arrive on campus with diagnoses of serious mental disorders – and for their parents – the passage can be particularly fraught.” The article focuses on the experiences of two young students diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who have recently made the transition to college. Their attitudes about their illness are very different as is their approach to caring for themselves. The fact that different people have very different perspectives on their “illness” and very different ways to deal with it indicates that is essential to have multiple avenues of access to various forms of mental healthcare.
The concept of multiple avenues of access was introduced to me by the NYU administration in a meeting at the beginning of the spring 2006 semester. During this meeting it became clear that, although the administration seemed hesitant about the idea of the Icarus Project on the NYU campus, they recognized the fact that they needed us. They understood that there are many students on campus that they are unable to reach and provide services to through the counseling center and the wellness exchange. They knew that many students are turned off by the idea of going to a university counselor, but are in need of mental health support. The administration recognized that the Icarus Project could potentially fill the gap, and reach those students that they cannot reach. They said that they were seeking “multiple avenues of access” to mental health support for students, and that the Icarus Project could provide another avenue. One of the goals of the Icarus Project is to educate people about the choices they have in taking care of their mental health that exist outside the mainstream medical and disease model of mental health. The Icarus Project has the potential not only to be an additional avenue of access to mental healthcare, but also to direct students to alternative choices that they may have been unknown to them.
One of the students from the New York Times article, Jean Lynch-Thomason, a student at Evergreen College, has figured out which avenues of mental healthcare work for her. Like the Icarus Project, it seems she rejects the mainstream medical model of mental healthcare. According to the article, “She said she stopped taking medications when she was 14 because the side effects left her feeling ‘out of whack and emotionally inauthentic.’ She is determined to stay off medications during college, and she devoted considerable advance thought to possible triggers for her illness, like the long rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest.” Some of her ideas of how to take care of herself changed after she began college, such as the decision to live alone. At first she said that living alone “would also afford her the privacy to sleep well and have the solitude she craves when her depression sets in. That solitude, she added, might be a double-edged sword in a new environment where she would be more reluctant to engage with people during dark periods of depression.” After she began school, she realized that living in a community would be more supportive for her mental health. She moved into an “overcrowded home…with several other students off campus” and “said it felt just right.” She says, “‘It’s not like I’m going up to people saying, ‘Hi, I’m Jean, I’m bipolar,’ she joked. ‘But I’m surrounded by beautiful supportive people, and I know if I need it, they will call me out.’”
For Jean, finding a supportive community is an essential part of maintaining her mental health. Since Jean began school, “she has maintained sessions by telephone with her therapist back home every two weeks. But she has also met people at the campus counseling center. She said she liked that they encouraged holistic as well as purely medical approaches to treatment, and that she would not hesitate to seek help there if the need arose.” It seems as though the Evergreen College counseling center is already providing multiple avenues of access to mental healthcare, by encouraging treatments outside the medical model. The Icarus Project on the Evergreen College campus could help organize a community of students supportive of mental health and provide yet another avenue of access to mental healthcare.
The other student from the New York Times article is Chris Ference. Chris has another perspective on his “illness” and has used a different avenue to access mental healthcare. To maintain his mental health he takes medication and goes to therapy sessions. Before he started school, his mother was concerned with the services the school provides. At a freshman orientation, his mother attended a session on student support networks. During the session, the director of the school counseling center, Sue Daley, told a story of “a young woman who had a psychotic episode the previous year, during which she ripped tiles from her dormitory room ceiling because she believed the F.B.I. was monitoring her. ‘We sent her home so she could get her emotional self together,’ Ms. Daley told the group.’ After the session, Ms. Ference complained that it sounded as if the goal of the counseling center was to get the ‘crazy kids’ out of the way.” Ms. Ference was offended by that statement and made efforts to speak with the counseling center and make sure they would take care of her son as she hoped they would. Later she met with Ms. Daley to get some “assurance that the school’s services were adequate” and “she left satisfied, she said, and Chris seemed comfortable enough with the counseling center to go there if he needed to.” Although Chris seems comfortable with the counseling center, he seems uncomfortable being open about his “illness.” According to the article, “Discreetly taking his medications in a dorm room typically crammed with engineering students until the wee hours of the morning is also a challenge. In an effort not to draw attention to himself, he said, he takes his two medications late at night, right before he lays his head down to sleep. If anyone notices, they have not let on.” Although from some people’s perspective this could be view as unhealthy because of the necessary secrecy involved, he has been happy with his ways of managing his “illness” in college. “He is under no illusions about his illness, he said. He knows it will be something that he has to learn to manage throughout his adult life. ‘But things are just going so good,’ he said. ‘So far.’” Chris’s approach to caring for his mental health is radically different than Jean’s, but they have both found the avenue of access that currently works best for them.
The fact that this series of articles is being published in the New York Times is proof that caring for the mental health of college students is becoming more and more difficult as the numbers of students with “illnesses” rise. Schools are providing services that are inadequate to care for many types of students. This is becoming a crisis that must be addressed to keep students happy, functional and successful. College must provide multiple avenues of access to mental healthcare in order to reach all students through different means. According to the article, “While universities grapple with how to serve the growing number of students with mental disorders, students are taking the initiative by helping one another.” The article then mentions organizations like “Active Minds, a student-led mental health advocacy organization” and the “National Alliance on Mental Illness.” These organizations are probably helping many people, but they still may be leaving kids who don’t identify or agree with the medical or disease model of mental illness without support. The Icarus Project has the potential to help these students and provide a form of mental healthcare that does not exist in the mainstream. The Icarus Project provides another model of mental healthcare, which creates an additional avenue of access that can be implemented on college campuses worldwide.
Clemetson, Lynette. "Off to College on Their Own, Shadowed by Mental Illness." The New York Times December 8, 2006: A1 and A32.