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When Mental Health Becomes a Weapon

A few months ago my phone rang and a 15-year professor and friend with countless awards for teaching was on the other end sounding desperate. With rave reviews and a fan club of students who return year after year with gratitude, this professor shared that they were under fire by the university for not passing a student.

The professor explained how this student had been late on several assignments and failed to turn in the final essay. For each tardy assignment the student had a specific excuse why they could not complete the work. This ranged from a computer crash, glitchy access to the school website for make up the work etc. While the professor was concerned and had offered to help each time, no other students were experiencing these technical difficulties and few of the excuses added up. The student openly admitted to missing a Friday class because they had friends visiting from out of town. This professor explained that they stood their ground just as they would any other student who was violating course policy and at the end of their meeting the student shouted "you will pay for this for not supporting my mental illness and depression".

This professor was crushed and puzzled by this threat as no prior mention of mental health had been made but in this moment it was too late and the student stormed out. By semester's end this professor has been promised a meeting with human resources to defend the application of basic of policy. A career being in jeopardy is just one of the casualties of the casualties of countless situations just like this.

This piece is not set out to debate that mental health is not a concern at every level in every profession and particularly the college setting.

Our institutions are largely understaffed and poorly equipped to deal with the massive demand for resources in the area of mental health. We must get a handle on this and aim to achieve a balance between compassion, support and reason. Without recognition and collaborative effort now, we will see more leaders, teachers, professors and coaches be dismissed on grounds of mental health claims by their constituency.

The Fearless Coach receives a few inquiries a week from leaders in this position where a student has violated team/classroom policies and has been excused by the administrations for poor behavior, lack of attendance or incomplete workload. Academic and athletic leadership remains frozen while counseling centers are overworked and throwing their hands in their air with little methodology to distinguish one case from another. Without informed protocol, these institutions' first instinct will be to get rid of the professor, teacher or coach that the student or athlete is dissatisfied with. This is of course in place of conducting an investigation to gain any sort of reasonable conclusion.

Team Rules and accountability are at risk.

A D-2 college coach recently shared with me about an athlete who repeatedly violated team rules by underage drinking, defacing property, and racial slurs at teammates and opponents. After several meetings and warnings as outlined in the team rules, he eventually suspended the player. To the coach's surprise, the athlete appealed this decision to the administration with the defense that the coach wasn't starting him and it was causing him to act out.

Despite even the team coming forth with concerns over their teammate's behavior the administration remained completely focused on obtaining assurance that the athlete stayed a member of the team. As a result, the coach began to lose the confidence from his other players while it affected the culture in a negative way the remainder of the season. The parents of this athlete have threatened to sue which will obviously compound the threat this makes to this coach's career.

We must bring back objectivity, and find a middle ground for schools, universities and businesses to be able to maintain high standards and instill accountability while simultaneously supporting and tending to the growing mental health epidemic. Our coaches, teachers and professionals will continue to feel fragile in their livelihood if we do not address this together and empower the educators on the front lines. A few ways we can achieve this are as follows:

1. Institutions should secure outside entities to do their investigating when these accusations arise in relationship to mental health.

When these situations arrive, not only are your senses heightened at the thought of parental backfire and legal ramifications but you are also faced with risking the absence of objectivity. We must look outside our institutions for objective third parties or firms who can conduct a proper and unbiased investigation.

When we get to a point where we allow anyone to use the words "mental health" as a form of weaponry against the system without merit, we are actively redirecting our attention away from those who are suffering and do require our most powerful resources and support.

We are setting precedent for future, classes, teams and work environments. Over the course of my 12-year NCAA career I have dealt with a few students that have knowingly used the words mental health when it came time to take ownership or accountability over broken team rules, being disrespectful, bullying teammates or violating drug and alcohol policies.

As educators we recognize that we may not always get every athlete or student on board with what we are teaching or instilling. However, we have all had heartbreak and anxiety over those students who have solicit their inventory of excuses for not meeting deadlines, not completing projects, behaving inappropriately or violating company/team rules. Unfortunately, even though this is such a minuet number in the industry, this minority is the group that possesses true potential to end careers while risking their own personal development.

2. Administrators must work directly with their professors or coaches to understand the existing environment and challenges

Professors and coaches are not therapists nor psychologists but they are professionals who want to work in environments that are safe for both the students and themselves. Impress upon your staff the importance of documentation for each interaction with the students and encourage them to come to you early on if they see any issues arising from a problem student that may have a deeper rooted issue.

3. Alert your classes and teams to any and all resources in the areas of mental health.

Mental health has become a hot button topic and is evolving in the way that we view and approach the issue. Making consistent reference to availability of resources and documenting how often you announce services and accessibility will continue to be crucial and valuable when explaining to a superior or legal team.

4. Work with your faculty and staff to understand existing mental health policies

The majority of these situations have grown so far out of hand, by the time a superior level of admin is involved, it's far too late. Recognizing this early can be a challenge and we all want to be as sensitive and swift with getting the right help in place. However, waiting until you are being brought in for a review to absorb your institution's policies may be too late.

5. Disabilities are not an excuse for bad behavior

The NCAA has language that includes neutrality on mental health similarly in how it regards student-athlete pregnancy. Both mental illness and pregnancy call for recognition of the issue, but are not excuses to behave in ways that violate team standards and rules. As an example, if an athlete becomes pregnant, she cannot be cut because of her pregnancy. But, if she misses practices unrelated to that pregnancy, (not due to a doctor’s visit or doctor’s orders to take a break) breaks a team standard like speaking ill of coaches or teammates or violates team standards of behavior, regardless of whether it is related to her duties as a new mother, she can still be disciplined. These conditions and situations do not grant immunity for the regular standards and bylaws of a team.

"Just because someone is in a protected category - race, religion, national origin, ability, sex... doesn't mean they are exempt from the requirements of the program. Meaning, if an athlete has a mental illness, they're excused from practice in order to see their treating counselor or physician to treat their mental illness." - Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO Champion Women, Title IX Lawyer and Olympic Champion

At the forefront are the students who are genuinely suffering in the system and we must demand perfection to be able to decipher between those who desperately need us and those who wish to escape the most basic of consequences.

If this piece feels bold to you, that's because it is. There are plenty of informational resources out there to show that our system supporting mental health could improve but what isn't being discussed is the underground world of how this being unjustly applied and affecting livelihoods. Special focus and support of mental health challenges in education and business should not be a reason to eliminate accountability. There must be a balance.

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