Grief on Campus

            College students on campuses across the United States have started to engage in critical conversations about mental health at both the individual and institutional levels. I would like to expand the conversation to include a prevalent mental health condition that too frequently goes overlooked on college campuses: it is time that we talk about grief, recognize grief as a mental health condition, and address it as such. My goal is to help develop our understanding of grief as a mental health impairment that demands greater attention at the institutional level.

            On July 21, 2017, one of my best friends, Curtis, died in a drunk driving accident. Curtis was the kind of friend who was in it for the long haul. He made trips down to Los Angeles from the San Francisco Bay Area every year for my birthday; he attended my graduation and going-away parties; he loved my siblings and friends simply because they were important to me. I was due to arrive in New York as a transfer student at Barnard College a month after he passed away. I did everything I could to prepare myself for my new adventure with my loss hanging over me. I intentionally minimized the risk of overworking myself; I signed up for three classes with plenty of downtime during the week and made an appointment with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) to discuss potential accommodations that would be available to me as a grieving student.

            During my meeting with an accommodations coordinator, I was told that I could not receive accommodations for grief because the office does not consider grief to be a disability. Knowing that anxiety and depression are among the most common disabilities that are addressed by ODS, I was stunned. I was told that I could only receive accommodations if my grief enhanced an existing mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. Fortunately, I do have an anxiety diagnosis and was able to receive the accommodations that I needed. But I was not there for anxiety. I have had anxiety for years and learned how to manage it with medication and counseling a while back. I was there for grief. I left the office feeling disturbed by the fact that I had to misconstrue the details of my psychological condition in order to get the support I needed. I felt even more disturbed thinking about grieving students who do not have mental health diagnoses being turned away.

            Life threw me another punch when my beloved grandfather passed away in February. He was my greatest role model, a best friend, and a loving adult figure who had a constant presence in my upbringing. I had a midterm scheduled for the day after his passing, and I had to be home in California for my his funeral on the makeup date. My professor did not offer me an alternative testing date and I had to take it the next day before catching a flight home. For much of my experience this year, I feel like I have been talking to a brick wall.

            However, this is not about me. An estimated 22 to 30 percent of college students are suffering from grief within the first twelve months after a loss at any given time. The Barnard and Columbia community has faced the tragic losses of Caroline Montgomery, Hannah Weiss, and Gage Bellitto since the start of the school year, which has altered the lives of many students. Furthermore, a nation-wide college suicide crisis and egregiously high rates of gun violence in the United States have made clear to all of us that bereavement is a real threat to the well-being of young people, and students in particular. Thus, it is critical that our university recognizes grief as a significant mental health condition that affects many students’ abilities to succeed in school. School-wide condolence emails and referrals to short-term counseling at the Furman Counseling Center are not enough.

            A sudden, major loss takes a lot of time and energy for the human brain to process. In a healthy, non-grieving individual, a proper sleep schedule and healthy habits like exercise and meditation should be sufficient for information processing. However, these daily activities are not adequate for processing in a grieving individual. In a setting like college, where people do not have the time to lie around and take things slowly, the grieving brain has to compromise basic cognitive functions and quickly burn through energy reserves in order to deal with the sudden loss of a familiar presence.

            Grief is not synonymous with sadness, and grief is not a “hard time” in life that you “move on” from. Grief takes many twists and turns and manifests in intense, unpredictable ways. The symptoms I have experienced feel more like a “brain fog” than general sadness. My memory has suffered to a notable degree; I struggle to recall names of people, places, and events that I have spoken of hundreds of times. My ability to concentrate has also declined significantly. After trying to do homework and pay attention in class all day, my brain hits the wall around 5 PM and I feel physically unable to do anything after dinner. Perhaps the most frustrating impairment that affects me is my inability to communicate digitally or maintain a schedule. I miss important emails every day and appointments nearly every week. Getting through the school week without missing assignments, classes, and other important responsibilities is really hard. If I did not have the accommodations that I received from the Office of Disability Services for my anxiety that I do not actually need help with, I would feel panicked about my grades and performance every day. With this support system, I feel confident that I can finish the semester and do well on the research projects that I feel passionately about.

            I need to make clear that my experience is not universal. Grief symptoms can be similar to those of depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, something entirely different, or a combination of many different conditions. It comes in waves and never manifests in a linear fashion. Some people experience complicated grief, which is an exceptionally debilitating kind of bereavement that demands consistent professional support and intervention. Every person experiences bereavement differently.

            Considering the scope of grief on college campuses and the tangible impact that it has on a student’s ability to succeed, I implore the Office of Disability Services to recognize bereavement as a psychological disability that justifies receiving accommodations. I am aware that a large part of why is grief is not recognized by the office is that all disabilities that they address require proper documentation and a diagnosis from a doctor. Thankfully, we have such a thing as a counseling center with licensed therapists and psychiatrists on campus. There is no reason why a student should be unable to obtain proper documentation for a grief diagnosis. Because every person experiences grief differently, it is imperative that our school’s doctors understand the full extent and symptoms of a student’s grief and relay such information to ODS if the student asks them to. Along this line, I propose that Barnard’s health care services take grief more seriously in general. There is a support group on campus for students who have suffered the loss of a parent, which is absolutely necessary. Perhaps the Furman Counseling Center can utilize resources to provide group support for students suffering other losses, as well.

            I am lucky to have professors who, for the most part, have been sensitive and understanding. However, institutional conversations about grief are presently just as inadequate as those that take place between individuals. Our school’s mental health care providers have a responsibility to address this oversight and stigmatization. A college campus is a student’s home, and home is where we look for support in times of need.

            I would like to finish by encouraging readers to be intentional about the ways in which they interact with grieving friends. The best way to foster an environment conducive to healing is to de-stigmatize conversation. Perhaps a friend in bereavement does feel ready to speak about their loss, but you cannot know if you do not ask. We are not looking for answers or advice; we are looking for human connection and all the joys that come with strong friendships. Bereavement is one of those life cruelties that affects everyone at some point or another. We must learn how to talk to each other about it.  If anyone is interested in hearing about him, I would love to talk about my good friend Curtis.