For a long time, I was ashamed of how I felt. Many times, I struggled to make it through the day. Last year, my senior year at the College, my condition became much worse. Most days, my feelings were so unbearable that I could not escape them. My friends helped me find counseling at the health center, but these sessions were generally unhelpful and often hard to schedule. After spring break, I could no longer function and turned to substances to try to make the feelings stop. I thought about more permanent solutions every day, but deep down, I didn’t want that. I felt ashamed of my feelings. I repeatedly turned to the Dean’s Office for help. I spoke with three deans, but only one of them truly tried to help. The others insinuated I just needed to make my problems stop. I believed them, too. I was made to believe it was my fault.
It is incredibly difficult for people with mental illnesses to seek help on their own. At least initially, people often need help finding treatment. In my case, a friend was finally able to get me to the health center. The student at the desk told me she could set up an appointment with the psychiatrist. I was in no state of mind to check up on this myself – I was struggling simply to function. As I learned after graduation, I was not sent to a psychiatrist but a nurse practitioner. Though she tried her best, she was not at all qualified to treat my illness. She prescribed psychiatric medication that made my mood swing all over the place, which I was told was normal. I continued seeing a counselor and things did seem a little better, until about a month before graduation, when all health center services shut down. With that support gone, the medication made everything much worse, and my mood spiraled. Ultimately, during senior week, I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. At the time I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone, but it was from trying to harm myself, needing to stop how I was feeling.
What I have learned since graduating and receiving actual care is this: things can get better. The health center staff is incredibly well-meaning, but good intentions do not equal good outcomes. It can be incredibly challenging for students at the College to get good medical care through the health center or even off campus, due to the relative lack of providers and transportation. The necessary resources would be hard to obtain in a sound state of mind, but almost impossible for someone suffering from mental illness. The doctor I regularly see now was horrified by the care I received. My doctor said I had an extremely dangerous reaction to one of the medicines I was given, and that I should be grateful it had not made me become more suicidal than it did.
Many of our peer institutions offer year-round health services, rather than cutting them off for budget reasons at the most stressful time of the semester. They also provide easy access to mental health services. When students enter the health center, they are immediately seen by someone who knows how to direct students to the care they need. Likewise, many of our peer institutions allow students to sign a waiver during First Days to allow the College to contact a student’s parents in the case of serious mental health issues. The College does not do this. All it offers is a psychiatrist who works a few half-days per week. It can take weeks to get an appointment.
What I have written should not be interpreted as my feelings towards the College community, but rather as a frank presentation of how the administration treated my case and probably many others. The College community is and has been incredibly valuable to me; it is a community in which I intend to remain an active participant. The relationships I forged with other students and faculty members will hopefully last a lifetime.
I wrote this to try to bring about desperately needed change. The issues I bring to light are ones well-known by members of the College administration. However, it seems they would prefer to keep these problems hidden; students are pushed to take semesters off, and it is kept quiet. I suspect like I did, they feel ashamed. Perhaps it is easier to blame students for their problems and thus limit the school’s liability when something goes horribly wrong. It certainly would be much more expensive for the College to provide help, rather than merely performing damage control.
To anyone else who is going through what I went through, I encourage you to seek the support of your friends and family. Personally, I was unable to get better until I did so. It can and will get better. The way you feel is not your fault. Recovery may not be quick. It has taken me almost a year of treatment to get to where I am today – happy, healthy and better than I have been in years – but it will happen.
As a community, we ought to do better to help the most vulnerable among us. We can hire qualified medical professionals, including counselors and doctors who are experienced in dealing with a wide range of disorders. Care should be much more accessible and easy to acquire.
I intend to write at greater length about this issue in another forum as there is more that ought to be said. However, to Adam Falk and certain members of the Dean’s Office: some of you have been aware of these issues for a long time, while others may not have known about them until last summer when my parents and I corresponded with you. Regardless, now you know. If this continues, when – not if – a student causes permanent harm to themselves, it is on you. You could have chosen to do much more to help. It’s time to decide what matters more: the health and lives of the members of our community or the bottom line on the annual budget.
Carson Eisenach ’14 lives in Princeton, N.J.