The Right Thing

May 24th, 2016

On Saturday night, Santa Ono, the president of the University of Cincinnati, shared with an audience of 200 people – and then later with his Twitter audience of 70,000 – that he had tried to commit suicide at two different points in his life. Because of the work I do with mental illness in the higher education profession, it doesn’t feel like I can let this pass without comment. That being said, there’s something absurd about the fact that we get excited and celebrate someone in a position of power sharing such a difficult personal story of mental illness.

What’s even more exciting – to me – is the fact that by and large, people have responded in an extraordinarily supportive manner. In fact, Ono states that the people he has told have been “almost unanimous” in their support of him sharing this information. For someone in such a position of power in higher education to not only share this information but be lauded for doing so is, well, honestly, it’s pretty freaking amazing.

When I first started sharing my story of depression publicly, I received similar support – many people encouraged me and called me “brave” for sharing about my mental illness. But there were also just as many people who remained silent. And then there were even a couple of people – closer friends – who warned me that being so open about my illness wouldn’t be good for my career. I know they meant well, but I’m still glad I ignored them.

Here is the challenge for me: I believe that in higher education we are conditioned to say the right thing – whether we really believe in that thing or not. This is why I believe that it is easier for us to stand up and advocate for our students with mental illness – because we actually believe that is the “right thing” – than it is for us to advocate for our coworkers and colleagues. It’s one thing for students – it’s another thing when we realize we have to work with someone who has a mental illness. And while we might say that we support someone with mental illness, it’s another thing entirely when we have to figure out a way to work with that person.

The problem with this is that until we really deal with that inner stigma so many of us are still carrying around, we can only be so effective in advocating for and helping students. And until we deal with that inner stigma, it might be fine for a university president or another person in a position of power to share their story, but we’re still going to struggle to fully support and work with our colleagues lower down on the ladder who are open about their mental illness. Whether you believe it or not, when your words don’t match your beliefs, that often comes out as silence or even as behaviors that can actually harm someone with mental illness. Silence matters – and behavior does, too.

I suspect this announcement by President Ono will make mental illness a hot topic in the higher education community in the days ahead. But let’s make it more than that. Mental illness doesn’t just affect us now, or during Mental Health Awareness Month or anytime someone else shares their story. This is what our hope is in making The Committed Project something that is ongoing – to give mental illness the spotlight it truly deserves year-round.

I’d like to thank President Ono – but not just him. I’d like to thank every single person that has shared their story about mental illness. I truly believe that the more stories we share, the more people can identify with those telling the stories and understand that this is not something we should fear or of which we should be ashamed. And for all of us, I have a request: let’s stop just saying the right thing and start doing the right thing by facing down that inner stigma and accepting mental illness in our coworkers and colleagues.