CW: Mental illness, suicide, self-harm
The first two colleges I tried couldn’t have been more different. After high school, I started out at a military officer commissioning college, later transferring to an experimental college in Massachusetts. During this time I was struggling with severe mental health difficulties. Now, having had time to process everything and reflect upon my experiences, I am ready to share my thoughts on managing mental health in college. (A note: my experience is not necessarily a reflection on the treatment of college students’ health across the board.)
Without going into too much detail, I suffered for years from bipolar type one and borderline personality disorder, both of which had gone undiagnosed. I dealt with a host of symptoms resulting from these health conditions, but it wasn’t until I was placed in the high-stress crucible that is a military college that these problems reached an unmanageable point.
In my time at the military academy, I was in and out of the doctor’s office for a host of issues unrelated to my mental health. I was unable to handle both the physical and mental stressors of the program and my body was flagging. During one of my visits I was sent to see an on-base social worker who asked if I had had thoughts of killing myself. The answer was, unfortunately, yes. Because of my lack of familiarity with mental health care procedures, this set off a whole chain of events I was in no way prepared for.
I was sent directly to a hospital where I stayed for ten days. Throughout my stay, I was visited by a variety of commanding officers who provided me with support and gave me information and messages from my few friends back at school. When I returned, I was given a list of options moving forward: stay in school with plenty of provisions to help me sustain academic success, medical leave, or separation from the academy. The stress of the military academy was too much for me to handle, and I ending up choosing the last option.
After leaving the academy I received ECT, took medication, went to therapy, and got a job. I was beyond excited to start at a new college, especially one that would allow me to forge my own academic path and boasted a caring and supportive environment for students from diverse backgrounds. Before starting, I let the school know about my medical history. I felt prepared.
Only a little over a month passed before I realized that I was not. I was super not prepared. In therapy I had learned how to address this, so I went to the student health center and asked for a therapy appointment. “Oh, an intake appointment? You’ll have to wait two months for one of those. What day works for you?” I scheduled my appointment and asked if there were any alternatives offered – if there was anywhere else I could go. They didn’t have any information for me, so I googled therapists that took my insurance in the area. Nothing accessible by walking or public transport. So I waited, hopelessly.
Less than a week later I took an overdose of my mood stabilizing medication. I was having seizures and vomiting. I couldn’t talk, and could barely see. My neighbor called 911 and I was taken to a hospital. In the ambulance ride over, EMT personnel discussed the drug use on my campus with great contempt, as I sobbed and asked them if I was going to die. Their response was, “I don’t know.”
I spent over two weeks in the public hospital that was a fifteen minute drive from my campus. By the time I left, dozens of patients had been in and out and I was the only patient who had been in the unit for that long. My family lived far away and my only communication with them was through difficult phone calls. No one from the school came to see me. No one from the school even reached out to me, except for after my first week in the hospital. Around that time a social worker told me that I had a phone call from the dean of students.
I walked in my hospital gown into an office and picked up the phone.
Hi, Katherine! How are you? How wonderful. Well, unfortunately you aren’t welcome back this semester. No, I’m sorry we’re just not sure that you will be able to handle the stress of school. Well, of course you’re welcome to reapply for next year!
I was devastated. It was happening again. Another year behind my friends in life, another failed college semester, another year at home not knowing what my future held.
My father drove hours to come pick me up from school where I tearfully moved out of my dorm and put all of my things in storage nearby. We met with the dean of students and she told me that I needed to demonstrate that I was getting good healthcare and could either sustain a job, take classes, or do volunteer work. I could do that.
I spent the next few months going to therapy twice a week. I worked part time, took online classes, and spent much of my free time volunteering. I finally found the best medicines that worked for me. I spent time learning about things I cared about and most importantly, I rebuilt many of the relationships that had broken over the last two years. I was in the best place mentally since early middle school, and with all of these amazing achievements and personal growth stories under my belt, I excitedly reapplied to school.
The day after my family returned from my brother’s graduation from the military college, I got a letter in the mail. I had not been re-enrolled. The school thought I had not followed its plan adequately enough. I wept on the floor as my family cried with me. They had seen everything I had done: they saw me claw my way out of a hole, only to be rejected by a school that “encourages a healthy and integrated mind and body.”
This isn’t an easy story to tell because it brings up a lot of memories that I wish I could erase. The mental health system as a whole is abhorrent – a larger topic for another time. My real focus here, though, is how I was treated by a school that was intended and designed for every student to always feel safe: a mentality touted constantly at orientation and beloved by students. I believe that, to some extent, what happened to me could have been prevented.
Everyone is talking about how there is a crisis in mental health among college students. Technology has made classes incredibly fast-paced and professors expect students to be able to check emails and online academic portals 24 hours a day. College tuition is absurdly high and students often work just to cover their living expenses, all while accruing tens of thousands of dollars in debt. There are also pressures in college that are especially difficult for first year students. The lack of structure can be very damaging, especially to those who suffer from any kind of mood disorder and anxiety, and can derail even those who are working to treat their illnesses.
Colleges should do more. Really, this is a nothing statement because it’s something that every compassionate person, news source, and mental health activist group has been saying for years. It is becoming increasingly clear that talking about it isn’t really doing that much.
The school I attended in Massachusetts got a few things wrong. First off, it should have provided greater availability of therapy appointments. I understand that intake appointments are longer and current clients take precedence, but the school has a responsibility to provide care for its students even if there is high demand for mental health services. I was shocked by the school’s lack of resources: no one was able to provide me with a list of therapists nearby, any guidance about how I could find relief while I waited for my appointment, or any other advice regarding mental healthcare in the area.
What was really most shocking to me, however, was how the school treated my hospitalization. While I was at the military academy – a comparatively stern, unwelcoming, and un-nurturing program – I was visited. The hospital was two hours from the military academy, but people brought me clothes and gave me guidance about how I could handle my situation. I had no visitors during my time at the hospital in Massachusetts, and the one phone call I got from the school was bearing bad news. The dean assured me that she thought it was important to tell me that I could not come back to school while I was in the hospital so that my reaction could be monitored by hospital staff. It felt cruel and was ultimately damaging to my self-esteem.
My experience made it clear that this college was not at all interested in my personal development and health. Those who hear about my experience often express shock that I would receive such horrible treatment at a school that claims so much care and compassion for its students. But even at a tiny school, I was just a number, just a liability. Someone who, because of my health, was not worth continuing to educate.
I didn’t write this because I think that colleges will see this post and be spurred to change campus policies. I wrote this because I want students, particularly those who will be starting college in the fall, to empower themselves to seek their own care. My desire is for every university to be full of understanding administrators and healthcare professionals who will do even just the bare minimum to assist college students in need of mental health care. Unfortunately, I know first hand that this isn’t the case, so I have compiled a pre-fall checklist for incoming college students to prepare to manage their mental health once school starts.
College should be exciting – a place where many find their passions, their people, and are able to forge a future for themselves. So if you’re concerned about the transition from high school to college (or from one college to another), take some time before the fall semester to locate resources and make a plan so that when your institution falls short in taking care of you, you have methods to take care of yourself.