This past week, Virginia state senators have passed a bill that would require public colleges to create policies on parental notification if their children show “suicidal tendencies,” unless a mental-health professional states that alerting parents would cause harm. As a William & Mary student involved in mental health activism, as an Asian-American who comes from a family that stigmatizes mental illness, and as a human who values his autonomy, I write this post to demonstrate just how much this bill disturbs me. I aim to prove that we need to treat and discuss mental health with the attention and nuance it deserves, instead of assuming that we can cure the complexities of the human brain with shallow, inefficient legislation.
I understand that these senators have good intentions; I get that they want to do something to prevent school shootings, to help people who suffer from mental illness. But they – as well as everyone else involved in this conversation – need to realize that introducing family into the equation will not aid students. Rather, the mandated notification of parents will only dissuade students from getting the help they need. Just last week I presented a program that almost 100 students attended about destigmatizing William & Mary’s Counseling Center, and as I planned the event, the foremost concern of my fellow students centered on their fear that they would get kicked off campus or would lose their confidentiality if they discussed suicide at the Counseling Center. If we eliminate college students’ autonomy, we risk turning away those who need counseling services the most.
Let us also keep in mind that several students have parents who either have no understanding of mental illness or in fact condemn it. Around middle school, I had some mental health issues, and my mother told me that I should get over it, that I needed to stop being weak, that “people with eating disorders are pathetic and sick.” While not all parents will scorn their children, I know a lot of my peers – in particular those with Asian or non-white parents – have parents who view mental illness as a character defect, as something that stems from a lack of strength rather than a complex mix of biological, social, and psychological factors. If we want to help students flourish and heal, we should give them the respect and discretion they deserve, instead of forcing them into dangerous or even life-threatening situations that involve family members.
I want to end this blog post by talking about Senator George L. Barker’s statement that the bill “will not interfere with the confidentiality of normal mental health situations.” As someone who studies Psychology, serves in a Peer Health Education group at W&M, and has experience with mental illness, I find that phrase outright offensive. He implies that any other mental health issue aside from suicide should be considered “normal,” and he thus creates a hierarchy of problems that puts suicide at the top. Are eating disorders normal? Is self-harm normal? What about social anxiety, binge drinking, or depression? Should we consider those with suicidal ideation “abnormal,” and thus treat them in ways that inhibit their autonomy, similar to a sequestering of sorts? This bill would fail to help anyone in a tangible way. It would only skim the surface of mental health and its complexities, and it would leave the issue’s remaining depth untouched and ignored.
Let us think about solutions. Instead of considering mental health as an easy issue with simple answers, let us challenge stigmas and create conversations. Instead of creating legislation that will do more harm than good, let us provide more funding toward college counseling centers so they can reach out to students in a more efficient manner. Instead of bringing ill-informed parents into the situation, let us require that professors and other faculty take a 30-minute At-Risk training, which will prepare them to guide students to the resources they need. Let us remember that addressing the issue of mental illness will require more than a well-intentioned, uninformed piece of legislation; promoting positive mental health means giving students’ voices the channels they need to feel heard in a safe, comfortable, and confidential space.
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