Urging caution in navigating College’s mental health services

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

This article alludes to suicide and self-harm.

I was a student at the College of William and Mary for one and a half years. Early in my sophomore year I decided to withdraw from school because of a suicide attempt. Many students share similar plights. A school has a duty to serve our needs to the best of its ability, and the College likes to say it does. For me, it seemed like a flagship for mental health progressiveness in higher education. Unfortunately, what little this school and others provide is not equivalent to outside services in the community, but no one in the administration would admit that.

The main issue is that the administration suggests students should use services available at the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center. The doctors say if there is something not provided at the center that they can give students referrals to community services. Many of these referrals have out-of-date contact information or are not taking patients. Others in the community are not even mentioned. Students are told that the wellness center will always be there when they need it — until they do. After a suicide attempt, I was released from the hospital on the goodwill of an evaluation done by counseling professionals. Unfortunately, I reported it to the College, a decision that multiple of the hospital staff told me not to do as they had terrible experiences with patients reporting it to the College in the past. I wish I had listened to them.

“After a suicide attempt, I was released from the hospital on the goodwill of an evaluation done by counseling professionals. Unfortunately, I reported it to the College, a decision that multiple of the hospital staff told me not to do as they had terrible experiences with patients reporting it to the College in the past. I wish I had listened to them.”

Afterward, I was called to discuss my situation. The event was barely mentioned – a doctor did not call; it was an administrator. The ‘courtesy call’ was to inform me I was no longer welcome at school. Later, some on-campus professionals suggested that it would be best to take a short time off from classes to recover. That should have been easy; I spent a good portion of my first year at school finding a psychiatrist that I worked well with at the wellness center and the administration had told me that most needs regarding psychiatric treatment could be met at the center, which for the most part was true. However, one would need access to on-campus services to utilize them.

Since I decided to take a break from classes, I was no longer considered a student at a school for which I had paid the full tuition of an unfinished semester. Because of the severity of the situation – even though I was evaluated to be stable enough to be released out of the hospital – I was considered a danger to the campus. Had I been living on-campus, I would have practically been kicked out of my student housing. To me, it seemed the school would rather at-risk students kill themselves off-campus than on it. I was completely cut off from the College’s healthcare services, which had been flaunted as always-available and always-present. If they no longer treated me, they seemingly believed that no liability for anything that happened would apply to the administration. In short, I was barred from my primary mental healthcare provider by the administration.

Yes, they provided recommendations. Two of the three were not taking patients; the third the recommender had admitted was neither polite nor punctual. Thus, a situation that could have been resolved in a matter of a month was dragged on for multiple as I attempted to find a doctor who was taking patients, familiar with my illness and worked well with myself — a rare combination. Had I been allowed to use the services that I had already become comfortable with and was told that I would be able to use, I could have easily come back for the second semester of my sophomore year. Instead, I had to let myself be convinced that it would be easier to take off the rest of the school year so that I could get better.

When I came back to Williamsburg, I planned to take all my fall semester finals at the start of spring semester. I was told I needed a sign off that I was stable enough to sit in a room, alone, with a pen and paper, and write my exams. This was taking place long after the original situation. My doctor was over four hours away and not willing to sign since they had not seen me in over a month. So ensued a lengthier than needed process to take a test. I decided to go to the counselor that had given me the green light to leave the hospital during the original event, but they practically refused.

“… universities are utilitarian. They paint a beautiful facade for potential students. Once in, if you fall into a category they are not well-attuned to, although they say they are, you will be left behind.”

That is a segue into the distressing topic of the school’s relationship with local professionals. The hospital staff had said that the school’s administrative reactions to these reports were too forceful – an opinion even echoed by a provider in the school’s wellness center. Almost all the providers that I saw within the Hampton Roads area had parallel concerns, only a few not mentioning the College specifically. The counselor who I went to for the sign-off and their supervisor were completely against it, stating something to the effect of “not wanting to be involved with them in any way.” In the end, there was no note given that expressly said I was in a good mental state. There was no special message from the provider. There was not even any concrete wording, but instead purposefully vague verbs with liability-free-leeway.

Unfortunately, many colleges share this style of response to students with mental disorders. However, here are a few core lessons I learned from this experience: first, universities are utilitarian. They paint a beautiful facade for potential students. Once in, if you fall into a category they are not well-attuned to, although they say they are, you will be left behind. Second, never rely on university or college services. Look for alternatives in the area that will provide service in an unbiased manner. Lastly, Do not be truthful, honest or open with your higher education institution. They will in no way use that information to help you.

Email Braeden Howell at bhhowell@email.wm.edu.