Last year, one of my favorite students lost her mind.
I had the ideal student: not brilliant, not a straight-A student, but very interested, someone who would ask the questions everybody else was wondering. A young woman like Amanda makes teaching easy; she illuminated for me what is unclear to the hoi polloi.
Therefore, I was a very saddened when, one Monday, her roommate (also a student) told me that Amanda was completely dropping out of school "to become an artist." I was surprised to hear this because Amanda was a Business major, and had not, to my knowledge, ever exhibited any tendencies toward making or appreciating art.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to my office the next day to find ten copies of a very long letter underneath my door, with the words "please translate me into anything" written on the back:
It went on and on. That happened on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, I saw Amanda outside the Student Union singing a dirge-like song - wearing clown shoes and a pageant crown. On Thursday she was doing the same thing, only dressed in her pajamas. On Friday, I received an email from Student Services informing me that she had been placed in state care.
Monday, July 20, 2009
As a mental health professional at a small liberal arts college, I've heard Amanda's story far too many times.
I applaud your posting of the piece, and I hope you didn't do it merely to make fun of yet another "crazy" student, because this story should be a bit of a wake-up call to all professors. This sort of thing is far more common than the typical professor understands.
The term I use for Amanda's episode - because it truly could be very temporary and/or caused by a mis-prescription or mis-use of a substance - is primary psychosis. At my 3000 student college, I see a dozen Amandas a semester. There is a bit of a running joke among my colleagues in the teaching fraternity that I must do nothing all day but watch soap operas and do my Sudoku puzzles. But Amanda and other young people just like her are on every campus, and the fragility of these students is not something to make light of.
I've seen scores of students over the years who go through this sort of "break" with reality. The stresses of being away from home, living on one's own, dealing with the academic and social pressures of a typical college life can bring this on, but as I noted earlier, the use or abuse of substances can often bring about these alarming breaks. The worst I ever saw involved a freshman who simply had a new prescription for a long-standing and normally useful anti-anxiety medicine.
I try to tell my friends on the faculty that they need to be aware of their students and to watch for changes in behavior. Those of us on a college campus are not just there for a paycheck. We're there - in part - as custodians of the students who come to us. By being aware that Amanda is not simply a freakish tale, we may get ahead of the next Amanda. She may be in your class this coming semester; what will you do to help?