“I’m literally fighting for my life but staying safe,” 22-year-old Christopher Biehn wrote in an email to his professor in late September of 2018. “I won’t be in class today (or perhaps for a bit) and just pray I won’t be hospitalized long-term.”
The crisis team of Ithaca College swung into action immediately after receiving notice from the professor who received the email. A campus safety officer went to Biehn’s apartment to verify his safety and a social worker from the college reached out to discuss academic options as he battled with bipolar disorder. Biehn continues to work on managing his mental health and sponsors a grass-roots social media campaign to promote acceptance of mood disorders in an effort to help others with his story. The quick response to Biehn’s email showed the school’s consideration of the well-being of their students, however, Biehn had a history of reaching out for help with radio silence in return.
Biehn recounted his experiences in extensive interviews, wrote about them in a public blog and hosted a column in the student paper. After the email incident, Biehn applied for a medical leave of absence from Ithaca College — his sixth leave within a four-year period. With first-hand accounts of his personal struggles with mental illness and a history of hospitalization due to his mental state, many wonder why it took a life-threatening email to catch the attention of the school.
The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine reports that one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem in their school years and up to 60% of those students do not receive the treatment they need due to stigma and lack of access to services. The students left untreated may suffer academically or emotionally while their mental health continues to deteriorate. In an age where pressure from family, school and society weighs down on a teenager’s developmental years, mental health means a lot more than ever, with access to helpful services ensuring the safety of students and their futures.
To combat stigma, educating the public eliminates paranoia about alienation because of mental health. Thankfully, organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America commit to spreading awareness around mental illness. Mental Health Month dedicates the month of May to stopping the stigma associated with mental health and emphasizing the importance of mental health.
US News and World Report notes that a few small studies have found “that teaching high school students about mental health improved their attitudes toward treatment, increased their willingness to seek help from a counselor and boosted their overall mental health literacy.” Education of students and teachers regarding mental health and increased accessibility to mental health services allows students to receive assistance before their lives ride on a single email.
The opportunity for reform calls for action. To keep our students safe and healthy, allowing them to find success and happiness throughout school and into the future, we need to show them the good in getting help.