“Although you may believe that having a cat in residence will help you, we have determined that authorizing the cat as a reasonable accommodation is not necessary in light of the evidence of your long history living in residence without such an aid and your excellent academic accomplishments.” That was the message that a student received via email from the Office of Accessibility, denying their request for an emotional support animal on campus.
Bowdoin owes its students, and not just those who have requested an emotional support animal, an explanation. This week in the Orient, revelations about the difficulty of obtaining this particular accommodation illuminate a deep misunderstanding among the administration about students who struggle with mental health and the resources that they need.
Emails like the one above suggest that the administration believes that past academic accomplishments indicate stable mental health. However, high academic achievement and mental health are in no way connected, and promoting this equivalency is actively dangerous. It is all too possible to be winning awards, getting straight As and breaking down on the inside.
Many Bowdoin students are high academic achievers, who are doing perfectly well on paper, but are struggling with mental health issues. In fact, the push to constantly achieve at a high level and take full advantage of all the College has to offer is, for some students, the reason they struggle with mental health.
Bowdoin touts its holistic evaluation of students in admissions, insisting that applicants are more than their grades, more than their test scores. However, this email suggests that the College no longer considers us in the holistic view once we enroll. Suddenly, our emotional and mental well-being is irrelevant, and our academic accomplishments become all that matter.
The system for obtaining an emotional support animal is representative of more structural issues. Bowdoin’s policies around mental health, from medical leave to access to counseling services, are often opaque, leaving students confused, frustrated and unable to meet their full potential or enjoy their four years here.
The Counseling Center contains a myriad of health professionals who have a deep understanding of the difficulties of living with anxiety, depression or any mental illness on our campus. However, these professionals are not the ones structuring these policies. Rather, it is left to administrators who are not trained on these topics and are clearly ill-equipped to deal with them. We suggest that the College leave these policies and decisions to medical professionals who have established relationship with students. An easy start would be to add a representative from the Counseling Center to the Accessibility Task Force.
Bowdoin’s policies on mental health need more clarity. As administrators work toward that, they should start by believing students.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Emily Cohen, Nell Fitzgerald, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh and Jessica Piper.