Around me lately, the talk has been about winding down the summer fun and getting students ready for a new school year (can you believe that August is already upon us?) Although I taught for almost two decades and found teaching to be a deeply satisfying career, I’m so relieved that I’m not one of those educators now scrambling to review the curriculum, prepare syllabi, check class lists, read course texts, post material online, beat crazy deadlines, and brace themselves for another busy semester. Not to mention the testing and grading nightmares that happen later. It’s only when I left teaching a couple of years ago, right after that first grueling COVID-19 lockdown semester, that I realized just how much preparation goes into it, how exhausting it all is (and how much free time I have now).
Supporting students with mental disorders
A report I recently heard on NPR Marketplace brought me back to those days, this time from the student perspective, and specifically, students with mental health challenges. If trained educators are overwhelmed by the sheer workload, imagine what students with mental disorders (such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders) have to go through to prepare for college and successfully graduate years later. It’s not just about enrolling in the right courses, navigating financial aid, budgeting and saving, buying (super expensive) text books, meeting the registration deadlines, finding a place to stay, managing time and social activities, maintaining healthy relationships, coordinating work schedules, all of which are daunting. For students with mental health diagnoses and learning differences, it’s also about finding a disability coordinator (if the college has one), applying for disability accommodations and disability testing (if applicable and available), ensuring your instructors are aware of (and comply with) your classroom accommodations, finding affordable medical and mental health services that can meet your needs (if you’re lucky enough to access them, they will most likely be with a new provider), monitoring and adjusting your medication carefully for a new schedule and lifestyle, keeping stress levels manageable.
In an ideal school environment with adequate funding and resources – which of course many schools don’t have – the needs of children with learning differences are addressed through IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) and other accommodations that are supposed to provide academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral support to these students during their school years. (I used to be a Special Educational Needs Coordinator or SENCO in my early teaching career in Kenya, and I remember how challenging this work was). However, when these students graduate from high school and are suddenly adults, they enter a scary and chaotic world where they have to navigate their personal and professional lives on their own. They are supposed to know what they need to be successful, find the internal and external resources to meet these needs, and be their own advocates. We are asking too much of them.
Bridging the mental health gap
That is why it was so inspiring to hear the radio report of two businesses in the US that were created to bridge this gap for students with mental illnesses and learning differences. One of them is EdRedefined, started by a father whose son is on the autism spectrum and needed support in navigating college life. When the father, Scot Marken – who describes himself as a social entrepreneur with a lived experience in the field of mental health – realized that these supports were not available for his son, he decided to create a company that provides them. The other is The Dorm, a company with locations in NY and DC that provides mental health support for students to build community, independence and well being during their college years.
Years ago, I worked with a local US company in the field of supported employment. I had never heard of the term, but got to learn and appreciate this line of work.The business was started by a former teacher who noticed that the needs of students with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities often go unaddressed, particularly after they graduate from school and “age out” of the supports that are provided mainly to children under 18. This teacher founded her company with the goal of filling this gap and helping these adults find meaningful employment in their communities and thrive in life. And while I remember those days fondly, I recall how challenging it was to encounter the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and misconceptions that many companies have about individuals with mental disorders.
I love the idea of businesses centered around providing services and resources for community mental health. Hopefully, more can be done to help such social entrepreneurs thrive and make their services more accessible to people in underrepresented communities who need them most.