The rapidly approaching Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders (ANAD) week, a five-day event dedicated to raising campus consciousness about positive body image and self-confidence, has cultivated a perfect environment in which to discuss a pervasive problem on campuses across the country: the difficulty of attending an institution of higher learning while struggling with an invisible illness.
Skepticism about the legitimacy of difficult-to-spot disorders persists on these campuses, and the University of Maine is, unfortunately, no exception. The insidiousness of autoimmune, body dysmorphic and personality disorders is troubling, their negative influence spanning both social and academic situations, virtually undetected in many instances. The impact of these ailments is felt by more students than any one person may imagine, simply because they exist so quietly.
The resulting difficulty with academic performance felt by afflicted students is staggering. Late and missing assignments require a doctor’s note and proof of illness: something notoriously difficult to provide when that illness is primarily mental or chronic. Those suffering from depression, anxiety or anorexia may be rendered incapacitated by their disorder — yet remain unable to prove their plight to professors, therefore unable to receive extensions for assignments due during a relapse.
Socially, those suffering from these sorts of diseases rarely receive the sort of sympathy and understanding required to overcome the pain, both mental and physical, that comes along with an invisible illness. Though clubs and centers on campus provide vitally needed support, the student body at large takes an overwhelmingly negative attitude about people seen as “needy” and “negative.” Chronic pain and distress is noted and empathized with for a short period, then dismissed as annoying, dramatic or excessive when it persists.
But the pain, and the hardship, is far from fleeting — and continued care is necessary to successfully overcome any disorder of this nature. A culture that demonizes, diminishes and discounts the very real pain felt by those experiencing these difficulties only encourages them to become even more crippling.
In light of the awareness sought by the events this week, individuals should take the time to evaluate how they interact with those fighting these invisible struggles. Compassion and friendship play a huge role in beating the odds and overcoming a sickness that can feel overwhelming and impossible to conquer.
Sufferers should be neither subjects of contempt nor subjects of pity — just people who, on occasion, need additional assistance in coping with the challenges posed by a life that all people sometimes struggle to endure. No matter the source of their pain, the solution is certainly not to alienate or stereotype individuals who need support more than scorn and caring more than condescension.
Rather, through understanding, the thwarting of bias, and education of all, an environment safe and comfortable to learn in can be created and, more importantly, sustained.