A moving letter:

When one is sick with some sort of mental illness, it is incredibly difficult for them to seek help on their own. It can take friends and family to, at least initially, help them find treatment and care by a medical professional. In my case, a friend finally was able to get me to the health center to try to get some professional care. The student at the desk told me she could set up an appointment with the psychiatrist. Normally I’m a cautious person, but 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 rather to a nurse practitioner. I am sure she tried her best, but she was not at all qualified to treat my illness, as I now understand. She prescribed psychiatric medication and trusting she was a psychiatrist with a medical degree, I took it. For weeks my mood swung all over the place, but I was told that was normal. I continued seeing a counselor and things did seem a little better, until about a month before graduation, all services at the health center 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. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone at the time, but it was not from partying too hard, it was from trying to harm myself, to make how I felt stop.

What I have learned since graduating and receiving proper care is this – things can get better. I should not be ashamed of myself, and one needs to see qualified professionals in order to get better. Those working at the health center are incredibly well meaning, but good intentions does not equal good outcomes. The doctor I have since begun to see on a regular basis was horrified by the care I received.

Read the whole thing, which also appeared (in shortened form?) in the Record. (Copy saved below the break.)

Mental Health at Williams

Letter to the Community

Time to step up

For a long time I was ashamed of how I felt. There were many days when I struggled to make it out of bed in the morning, and even when I did, found it very difficult to make it through the day. But for years I was able to cope well enough that it was largely hidden from the outside world. Last year, my senior year, my condition devolved and how I felt became much worse. Most days I would go to such a dark place that I could not leave it. It felt like I needed the entire outside world to go away, I could no longer cope with it or be a part of it. I eventually, at the urging of my friends, sought help partway through the fall of my senior year. I stopped going to the counseling they helped me find at the health center because it became so difficult to even get a session with one of the counselors at the health center let alone at a time I could make it without missing class or other obligations. Besides, the sessions were too short to be helpful in any event.

I tried again during the winter and spring semester, but still found the sessions unhelpful and hard to schedule. Finally after spring break, I could no longer function. I could not make it through a single day without needing the entire world outside me to go away, so I turned to substances to try to make the feelings stop. I thought about more permanent solutions every day, but I didn’t want that deep down. I felt ashamed for feeling the way I did. I repeatedly turned to the Deans office for help. I spoke with three of the Deans, but only one of them truly tried to help – the others explained to me why and how I had problems and that I just needed to make them stop. I was made to feel that I was at fault for what was happening inside my head. I believed them too, I believed it was my fault.

During that semester, as my condition worsened, it took one of my friends calling my parents to explain what was happening and having them dropping everything to come stay with me for days and weeks at a time for me to be able to complete my coursework. Through it all, every single person in my life knew something was wrong. Those with whom I had a personal relationship tried to help, picked up for the slack for me when I couldn’t make it through the day. And I am incredibly grateful for that, but I clearly needed treatment by a medical professional. The Deans Office knew that and even acknowledged so in not so many words said to my parents, who after learning what had gone on, were quite upset and demanded to know why I had not been urged to find treatment. To know why no one had helped.

When one is sick with some sort of mental illness, it is incredibly difficult for them to seek help on their own. It can take friends and family to, at least initially, help them find treatment and care by a medical professional. In my case, a friend finally was able to get me to the health center to try to get some professional care. The student at the desk told me she could set up an appointment with the psychiatrist. Normally I’m a cautious person, but 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 rather to a nurse practitioner. I am sure she tried her best, but she was not at all qualified to treat my illness, as I now understand. She prescribed psychiatric medication and trusting she was a psychiatrist with a medical degree, I took it. For weeks my mood swung all over the place, but I was told that was normal. I continued seeing a counselor and things did seem a little better, until about a month before graduation, all services at the health center 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. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone at the time, but it was not from partying too hard, it was from trying to harm myself, to make how I felt stop.

What I have learned since graduating and receiving proper care is this – things can get better. I should not be ashamed of myself, and one needs to see qualified professionals in order to get better. Those working at the health center are incredibly well meaning, but good intentions does not equal good outcomes. The doctor I have since begun to see on a regular basis was horrified by the care I received. If one understands the reactions a patient can have to the medication I was given, they would have observed that I was experiencing an extremely dangerous reaction. My doctor said I should be grateful it had not made me become more suicidal than I did. Patients with a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum can become incredibly dangerous to themselves if given the medication I was given. It was prescribed to me about two weeks before health services closed. I have now learned proper medical practice is to monitor the patient for many weeks to make sure they react positively to the medication. The care I did receive was negligent, bordering on malpractice. I do not fault those at the health center who provided it, they were incredibly well intentioned, but it is horribly irresponsible for the College to not ensure there are qualified professionals who can monitor and provide proper care.

As everyone on campus who has sought some sort of medical care while at Williams knows, it can be incredibly challenging to receive it through the health center. It is also difficult to get care off campus due to the relative lack of providers and because transportation is needed to get anywhere. In the case of mental illness, the necessary resources would be hard to obtain when in a sound state of mind, but nigh upon impossible for someone who is suffering from mental illness. If the case is severe, it might well be unsafe for someone in that state of mind to drive to get treatment, presuming they even had access to transportation.

Many of our peer institutions offer year round health services, they don’t cut them off for budget reasons at the most stressful and precarious time of the semester, finals season. They provide easy access for the most vulnerable members of their community to the mental health services they need. When they enter into the health center they are not greeted by a student who works there a few hours a week and simply cannot help route students to the care they so desperately need, no matter how well intentioned they are, but by someone who is knowledgeable about how to get care and can make sure the student sees someone who can help. At Williams this is even more important because we are located in an environment in which there are no accessible resources off campus. The care offered on campus, and so effectively all that is available to any student, is better than nothing, as it must help some students. However, it is negligent to bring so many students into a stressful environment which can cause these conditions to develop and then have almost no care available.

And think about what must happen to students who are sick and do not have parents who can drop everything to come help, and pay for whatever care they may need? The school provides nothing for them, they are left to try to overcome their illness on their own. In my case at least, I could not have succeeded, or even made it through the semester, without the resources I had available to me through my parents. After all I had been trying for years to cope on my own and failing.

In my case, and as a general policy, the Deans Office point blank refused to provide any information to the two people in the world who would do anything to make sure I got help, my parents. Many of our peer institutions allow students to sign a waiver during first days to allow the college to contact a student’s parents if the student having health issues, mental or physical. All Williams offers is a psychiatrist who works only a couple half days a week at the health center and with whom it can take weeks to get an appointment.

What I have written should not be interpreted as my feelings towards the Williams community, but rather a frank presentation of how members of the administration treated my case and most likely have handled many others. The Williams community is and has been incredibly valuable to me. I made many of my best friends during my time here and the relationships I forged with both them and faculty members will hopefully last me a lifetime. There was a period of time last summer where I decided that I could not in good conscience continue on as a class agent after realizing these dollars I help raise pay the salaries of administrators who have behaved and continue to behave in a grossly negligent manner. Later I determined I had made a mistake and decided to continue on as class agent, coming to the realization that I need to stay involved because the Williams community is something I hold dear and I cannot contribute to bringing about desperately needed change without doing so.

Rather, I wrote this to say what needed to be said. To bring to light issues well known among members of the administration that it seems they would prefer to keep hidden. Why is unbeknownst to me. A cynical, but perhaps truthful, take is that perhaps it is because it is easier to blame a student for his problems, to tell them their disease is their fault, and thus limit the school’s liability when something goes horribly wrong. Maybe if a student feels so ashamed of his disease, it will all be kept quiet and go away. I was repeatedly made to feel that this was all my fault and that I just needed to be better. No one in the administration tried to ensure I got help, thought it was plain as day to them I needed it. Members of the Deans office admitted it is a serious issue that psychiatric services are cut off at the end of the semester. Throughout my final semester and especially my final weeks at Williams I repeatedly sought help and could not find it. The help I did receive was frankly unprofessional, and dangerous to my health. However, it certainly would add cost to the college’s bottom line to provide help rather than merely perform damage control. It is less expensive to frame the dialogue by phrasing written and verbal communications with a student who is suffering in such a manner as to blame the student for their illness with the intent of absolving the college of any liability for what happens next.

To anyone else who is going through what I went through I encourage you to seek the support and help of your friends and family – I personally was unable to begin to heal until I did so. It can and will get better, and it is not your fault you feel that way. It may not be quick – it has taken me almost a year of treatment to get to where I am today, happy and healthy and better than I have been in years – but it will happen.

As a community we can do better to help the most vulnerable among us. We can hire qualified medical professionals, counselors who are more experienced in dealing with a wider range of disorders, and make care accessible and not burdensome to acquire. Not doing so effectively prevents a member of the community who is very sick from getting any care at all. And this is not to suggest that students who really need to take time off for health reasons do so; there are many times when a student with either physical or mental health issues may need time to get better. But it is reprehensible that certain individuals in the college’s administration, through their policies and actions, create an environment where a student’s health will deteriorate to a point where this becomes necessary and then pretends as if it is somehow the student’s fault as it is not the college’s role to act as a surrogate parent. It is not necessarily the proper role for the college to act as a surrogate parent to a student while he is at school, but that is a far cry from simply making sure healthcare is available and of at least a reasonable quality.

To Adam Falk and specific members of the Deans office, some of you have been aware of these issues for a long time. Others among you maybe were unaware until last summer after my parents and I corresponded with you. Regardless, now you do know. It is not as if a solution here is complicated to figure out – just look at how any other school which has and does provide proper care accomplishes it. It is completely unacceptable to knowingly create an environment where students who have health issues are unable to get any care, refuse to notify individuals in the students’ lives who would be willing to make sure care they received care, blame the students for their health issues and punt on any sort of responsibility. It is time to stop keeping your behavior under wraps by shaming and forcing students out who have developed issues in order to hide how your actions, or lack thereof, have directly caused their health to deteriorate. It is time that everyone in the community be made aware of exactly how culpable you are in all this, and that these issues are not something of which you are unaware and unable to act to ameliorate. Though these issues are complicated and difficult to solve in their entirety, there are several obvious steps that would go a long way towards fixing them; do not pretend otherwise. And if this continues, when – not if – a student causes permanent harm to himself, it is on you. You could have chosen to do much more to help and it is time for you to decide what matters more: the health and lives of members of our community or the bottom line on the annual budget.

– Carson Eisenach
Class of 2014

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