Lost in Limbo: How Colleges Fail Their Most Vulnerable Students | Katie Hauth

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Something had clearly changed. It wasn’t normal for any college freshman to be caught sobbing in the dorms at all hours of the day, to miss important deadlines, to constantly feel like screaming. Even as I told myself to just get it together and stop being such a lazy wuss, I knew the problem ran far deeper than just a simple case of stress.

What I didn’t know was how entangled I would become in a system I still struggle to navigate nearly five years later.

The college I attended at the time had recently instituted a new policy, allotting each student only eight Counseling Center visits per academic year. If you used them up, the Center would give you recommendations for other professionals, but nothing more. No more free visits, no more free consultations – unless you called in with an immediate, suicide-level emergency.

Despite the shortage, I decided it was time to tap into my limited resources, not that it ended up helping much. It took two weeks to even find an appointment time I could manage (in retrospect, a sure sign that I was overworking myself), but I was told “It’s just freshman stress. Wait a week, and you’ll probably be fine.” The next week’s appointment felt dismissive enough that I decided not to weather the humiliation any longer, despite my desperate situation. So maybe I didn’t have depression. I could hack it alone.

Here’s a tip: don’t make mentally ill students try to hack it alone. I did end up seeking professional help outside the college, beginning therapy and medication, but the delay had caused a permanent setback: where before I had been overstressed, I had since fallen into a lethargic state of accepting my own failure – perhaps not the best state in which to take final exams.

The school isn’t entirely to blame: the number of students seeking mental health services has soared in recent years, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Counseling services can’t keep up with the rapid demand for more facilities, more staff, more resources. Clearly, though, the solution cannot be to just hope for the best with what we have.

After a summer of therapy and a prescription for Zoloft (which later became Celexa, which later became Paxil, which later became Lexapro; SSRI medication is tricky to get right), I returned to campus only to find myself struggling again. Supposedly my mental state had improved, but “did half her homework and didn’t show up for one of her finals” isn’t exactly sterling success. But what else was there to try?

Eventually, posters around campus led me to another organization: the recently-founded Friends of Anxiety Disorders, led by two seniors who’d had their own trials and trauma from their own disabilities. The purpose of the club appealed to me: not a support group, but instead a force to advocate for necessary services on campus. FAD’s first meeting radically recontextualized my lonely struggle: the room overflowed with students, mostly younger and female, not only there to get help for their disabilities but to tell stories of how campus services had failed them.

One talked about being asked to leave group counseling because her grief over a sudden family death “brought the others down.” One said she had been evicted from campus housing after a suicide attempt. Another complained bitterly about being given alcohol-abuse academic penalties after requiring a mental-illness based hospital visit. The worst part? The club presidents told us that the Counseling Center was reluctant to help us or listen to our concerns.

None of this seemed plausible to sophomore-year me, who couldn’t fathom why the Counseling Center wouldn’t want to provide the best help possible. Yet these occurrences are all-too-real, and more widespread than you’d expect.

Katie J.M. Baker reported in Newsweek that colleges try to reduce the risk of being labeled “suicide schools” or having “dangerous” students on campus by coming down hard on troubled students, preserving the school’s reputation at their own students’ expense. She gives the example of “Dan,” a Princeton student who went to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Before he’d even made it out of the hospital, he was kicked out of his classes and housing and banned from even setting foot on campus. All of this occurred despite having been determined not to be a danger to himself or others. Quickly, Princeton forced him to withdraw from the school.

Baker offers another example of colleges hurting rather than helping: “Shireen” at UC Santa Barbara, was deemed a violent threat to her entire dorm building for cutting herself. Shireen was required to waive confidentiality with her therapist so the university could keep tabs on her via weekly reports – a decision that resulted in telling the therapist what the administration wanted to hear, rather than getting helpful treatment.  Shireen was also subject to an “Educational Sanction for the UCSB Alcohol & Drug Program,” just like one of my FAD buddies. Shireen received an apology; my friend did not.

Despite its flaws, this system was the only one I had. I had to trust in it. My personal experience wasn’t great, but it was hardly as bad as the horror stories I kept hearing. In the end, I withdrew and/or was kicked out (a classic “You can’t fire me, I quit!” scenario). During the semester leading up to my departure, I found myself in the Academic Affairs office. Apparently they were supposed to provide a counselor who would help with study strategies and liaise with professors in order to set up disability accommodations. Great!

Or not.

I agreed to partner with a friend of mine, a former science professor who had decided to transition into helping students another way. We met once or twice a month in her office, but it became clear over the course of the semester that her strategy for helping me do the work I was too tired and anxious to do was “Well…you need to try catching up on your work!” Excellent deduction, Sherlock.

I found out, however, that throughout the semester my liaison had indeed been liaising with my professors – just without my knowledge or input. Some of my professors brought it up to me immediately. I appreciated that, but I was deeply disturbed that my ‘counselor’ hadn’t even thought to mention these meetings had happened. Some waited until the end of the semester to casually let slip that they’d known about my struggles for months. Some never said anything, and I still wonder if there were meetings about my own medical information that entirely escaped my knowledge. Academic Affairs had already required me to sign disclosure agreements to receive any aid at all (not to mention the disclosure agreements that came as part of admission, which I didn’t even remember), so none of this was illegal. Just disrespectful. Just alienating. Just disheartening.

Did any of this privacy violation result in accommodations? Of course not.

Other students had privacy issues as well: “Jennifer,” a friend I met through FAD, faced intrusive, irrelevant questions while applying to study abroad, and the Study Abroad office refused to disclose how they acquired her medical history. Other campus offices she had made aware of her situation denied having her information on file or sharing it with other departments.

Meanwhile, I encountered another problem. A certain attitude pervaded the campus: if you can’t take the heat, get out of the dining hall. My own academic advisor helpfully advised me to drop his course after I missed one deadline, because obviously I would be unable to pass. My Victorian Lit professor offered much the same perspective as I struggled to keep up with her deadlines as well. No offers of help, no arrangements, no recommended study strategies. Just immediate discouragement.

Luckily, this attitude does not seem to be a norm; the professors at my current university are eager to help students find solutions. At the end of that disastrous semester, I had no choice but to drop out; here, professors are willing to work with me to schedule extensions, make up work, and discuss strategies to ensure my success.

Unfortunately, this approach is not universal. Even though some colleges are clearly getting away with it, failing to provide this kind of help is illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against those “whose psychiatric disabilities ‘substantially limit a major life activity’” and requires that those with physical and mental disabilities be given “reasonable accommodations.” In the case of a mental illness, this could manifest as modified deadlines, alternate assignments, more time to complete exams, or even retroactive withdrawal from courses. Was I offered these options when I needed them? No. Did I know to ask for them? No.

After all that, it took me three semesters at my new college, Central Connecticut State University, to work up the courage to try again with their Student Disability Services. So far, the SDS office has been helpful, discreet, and willing to discuss the pros and cons of various accommodation options – a huge and welcome change from what I knew.

Having support is a godsend, because I know one thing about students with mental illnesses: we can’t just function alone. Friends of Anxiety Disorders crumbled after only a few semesters a natural consequence of people who are already overwhelmed trying to take on even more responsibility with no administrative support. We didn’t entirely lose, though; according to the former president of FAD, our efforts helped to pave the way for a chapter of Active Minds, a national college mental health advocacy organization, to be founded on my old campus.

Even as outside organizations and student-run clubs try to fill the gaps, colleges have to take notice: “Not actively harming students” isn’t enough. These services are vital, and with the population of students looking for mental help on the rise, immediate action is the only way to avoid losing all the potential that these students represent. What will it take for all colleges to treat their disabled students as members of their organization, rather than liabilities?

 

 

 

Katie Hauth, Blue Muse Staff Writer