Mental Illness as Higher Education Professionals

Kristen Abell, Executive Director of Awareness and Advocacy, The Committed Project

June 13, 2017

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and Kristen Abell reflects on what it means to have mental illness as a professional in higher education. What are you doing to support those with mental illness on your campus and educate about mental illness?

This Is What Mental Illness Looks Like

About five years ago, I was a director of student housing at my institution. In August of my last year as a director, I called my partner from work. More accurately, I called my partner while curled up under my desk in my office.


“I think I may need to go to the hospital.”


“What’s the matter?! Are you having trouble breathing?” (I have a history of hospital visits for asthma).


“No. I think I may need to be committed.”


It was the first time I had ever said those words aloud, and they scared the heck out of me - and my partner. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d say them, but it was a few more years before I told any of my colleagues that I had considered that. Of course they seemed supportive, but how would they treat me if they knew I experienced mental illness? Would they still be supportive? Or would they constantly be questioning whether I could do the job, whether I was going to have a breakdown, whether I was making the right decisions?

It’s Not the Students

We have a problem in higher education - and it’s not mental illness. It’s the stigma around mental illness.


Often when I say this, many educators immediately jump to how we support students with mental illness. We know there are more students experiencing this on our campuses every year, and our resources are limited. But that’s a known issue. What is unknown - or resisted - is the idea that our colleagues on campus are also experiencing mental illness. And we’re ignoring it. And as much as we say that our attitudes towards students with mental illness are supportive and accepting, they can see through that if the only people we’re supportive of are the students.

Getting Committed

In the past few years, suicide, hospitalizations, and leaving higher education entirely have started to become more visible in our profession. Based on the rise in conversation - once in a blue moon - on social media, a colleague and I began a small organization, The Committed Project. We’re committed to supporting our colleagues with mental illness and educating about mental illness to eradicate the stigma in higher education. But to really be effective, we need to have these conversations on all of our campuses. We can help, but everyone needs to do some of the work.


As we take some time to refresh ourselves over the summer and even engage in some professional/personal development before the new year begins, I hope you’ll consider learning more about this topic. Consider finding ways to work this into your staff training or retreats. Host a professional development session on your campus. And let us know how we can help. I hope you’ll consider getting committed, too.

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