When Mentally Ill Students Feel Alone
March 4, 2015 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Following the apparent suicide of an undergraduate student, Yale University's community is grappling with questions and concerns about the school's handling of students with mental illnesses. In ""When Mentally Ill Students Feel Alone", The Atlantic discusses the school's policies, how they may be discouraging students from taking needed time off to address mental illness, and broader questions about the rise of mental health diagnoses on college campuses and how universities can better address their students' mental health needs.
posted by Stacey (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
It is sad and disgusting that Yale sacrificed this young woman for the sake of their reputation. I wonder if her family has any legal options available to them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:02 PM on March 4, 2015

Another reason to mistrust your school on matters of mental health: FERPA allows them to access your campus health records and use them against you if you sue them (content warning for link: sexual assault).
posted by gingerest at 6:20 PM on March 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is so sad.

In her book Halfway Heaven, Melanie Thernstrom discusses a murder/suicide that took place at Harvard. In the process, she describes a woefully inadequate response by student health services to mental health problems. That was in 1995.
posted by BibiRose at 6:26 PM on March 4, 2015

It seems like every year or so, an undergrad at a top college kills themselves, people write a couple of hand-wringing articles, students at that school get mad, and then it's forgotten. I'm wondering when things are going to change. These places have multi-billion-dollar endowments; they can afford to do whatever they need to.

The culture (and I mean student culture also) of these places is part of the problem; they are basically rock tumblers, where you get knocked around, come out polished, and a few unfortunates get chipped or even crushed. It's a social transgression to show weakness. But it also does seem like there's an element of administrative ruthlessness: like if a student isn't going to contribute to enhancing the school's prestige, they are just discarded.

Obviously nobody wants to drive students to suicide. But do you think that, if the administration could predict who would have serious mental health problems after enrolling, they would admit even one of those students?
posted by vogon_poet at 6:49 PM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am fairly certain two unrelated students (one undergrad, one grad) killed themselves the same weekend at my university workplace last semester. There were one or two articles in the student paper remembering them and mourning their loss, but nothing about what happened and never any followup. Completely swept under the rug and nothing about how to help other students who may need assistance, signs to look for, anything. At least, nothing on a university-wide level that I saw. It was pretty troubling.
posted by leesh at 6:54 PM on March 4, 2015

Previously on mental health at Yale.
posted by pemberkins at 6:59 PM on March 4, 2015

Yeah, student suicides happen at the university where I work, and they're not publicized. I know that there's some outreach to their friends, roommates, etc., although I don't know how the university identifies those people, but you aren't going to hear about it in the campus media. On the other hand, my university absolutely does not do the bullshit thing where they punish students for getting help for mental health issues. If a student has to take a leave of absence, they can come back the next semester, no questions asked. It's actually in their best interest to tell the university that they're taking time off to get treatment for a medical issue, because they can sometimes get a tuition refund. I did my undergrad at an institution that effectively kicked people out for being mentally ill, so I was incredibly relieved to find out that we don't do that.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:04 PM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think perhaps one of the greatest things that can help is erasing the phrase 'survival of the fittest' from every human language. That's what breeds the rock-tumbler world mentioned above.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:05 PM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I couldn't finish reading this article. Last summer, a rising high school freshman that my daughter went to school with killed himself. The FPP was about college, but this was a boy who had just graduated middle school. If colleges can't handle it, how can primary and secondary schools? There needs to be a sea change in how schools in general deal with mental health.
posted by Ruki at 7:26 PM on March 4, 2015

You misspellled 'society' in your last sentence there. Not intending to be snarky; these situations are symptoms of a much bigger problem.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:36 PM on March 4, 2015

Ha, I was going to add a sentence about how society needs to handle mental health issues better. I didn't want to exploit the edit button and I feel like I double post a lot here. Not snarky, you're absolutely right.

I'm not that old, I'm 35, but there was one, ONE, person I graduated with that ended up committing suicide, well after graduation, and that was related to combat PTSD. Yet my 13 year old already knows suicide. It's most certainly a bigger problem.
posted by Ruki at 7:47 PM on March 4, 2015

The culture (and I mean student culture also) of these places is part of the problem; they are basically rock tumblers, where you get knocked around, come out polished, and a few unfortunates get chipped or even crushed.

I think it's more than just "a few unfortunates" who get chipped, crushed, and mutilated. You just never hear about most of them because there's a stigma about admitting that you ever came through a prestigious and expensive college experience anything but transfigured.
posted by blucevalo at 8:00 PM on March 4, 2015 [11 favorites]

Thank you for posting this.
posted by argonauta at 8:08 PM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Their readmission policies shocked the shit out of me. My alma mater is pretty much literally a revolving door of people suddenly dropping back out and wanting back in for whatever reason (frequently mental health issues), and sometimes no sooner does one drop out than they immediately want back in next term. Hell, I found out about a guy who has dropped in and out of the school....well, it's in double digits. Admittedly, I suspect the standards for readmission must not be super high here, but Yale's look soooooo harsh. They really don't want you leaving except for some foreign travel/internship enrichment thing, really.

Gah, no wonder people at Yale aren't doing well. To say the least. With all the mental health drama the kids have these days.... especially if they'd rather die than not get readmitted to Yale.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:37 PM on March 4, 2015

Pham, the Yale senior who knew Wang, says students shouldn’t focus on assigning blame to the school; instead, they should work toward fostering a more positive environment on campus for their peers’ emotional wellbeing

Why not both?
posted by polymodus at 1:06 AM on March 5, 2015

I'm currently awaiting admissions decisions at some top schools, having put off higher education for many years because of lifelong mental health issues. This was a pretty sobering read.

I guess now at least I can be glad I didn't meet Yale's oddly-specific requirements for non-traditional students.
posted by teponaztli at 1:26 AM on March 5, 2015

It’s worth noting that at Yale, nearly 40 percent of undergraduates use the school’s mental-health resources before graduating—a demand that, some students claim, has caused long wait-times for appointments and is believed to take a toll on the quality of care.

That is something that started to change between when I was an undergrad (at a high stress liberal arts college with a reportedly very high suicide rate; there was at least one a year while I was there though supposedly it is much better now), when almost no one I knew went to the counseling center; and when I was in graduate school (also at a high stress place with a high suicide rate), when many more people were accessing those services.

I am told that currently the students are using those services in very high numbers, which on the one hand is good, since those are critical services that should have no stigma, but on the other hand also reflects how stressed the kids are, with debt and job worries intersecting with the usual school and family stresses.

Yale's policies, from the description in the article, could certainly stand to be much less punitive, because when a student is a danger to self or others they need to be in care, not at school, and removing useless barriers (like fear of readmission or stigma) is one of the low-hanging-fruit in making that happen.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:31 AM on March 5, 2015

I went to a decent enough college, in the early 90s. I was having some difficulties as a freshman so I went to the counselling center. I think we were allowed 10 visits. So I went and saw this counsellor, and told him all my woes, many of which related to coming out. But there was something else going on, too. I distinctly remember telling him that the deer who grazed outside my dorm were watching and judging me. That didn't seem to alarm him, and after a few visits he told me I was doing much better and didn't need to see him anymore. He told me how smart and creative I was and how proud my parents should be.

If he had taken the time to question my statement about the deer, maybe he would have referred me to a doctor. Maybe a doctor would have diagnosed me with Bipolar when I was 18, instead of almost 40.

Now that my kids are heading into college, it frustrates me to see that nothing's changed.
posted by Biblio at 12:31 PM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another reason to mistrust your school on matters of mental health: FERPA allows them to access your campus health records and use them against you if you sue them (content warning for link: sexual assault).

New related thread.
posted by homunculus at 2:03 PM on March 5, 2015

This feels very timely to me. Since January, we've been housing a 20-year-old friend of a friend who was kicked out of our local Big State University after a mental health crisis during the fall semester. After being released from the hospital, they were removed from campus with less than half an hour to collect a few things from their dorm room; they are not allowed back on campus except for required appointments and evaluations that are part of the re-admission process, and were only able to get the last of their things from the dorm a few days ago. The university put them on probation and instituted these restrictions despite knowing that they had no family support, financial or otherwise (young trans person from Adam-rode-dinosaurs type of Christian background), and that they would be homeless after being released from the hospital. As far as they can tell, they are expected to pay for their dorm room this semester; it's being paid by a scholarship, but it's not clear whether they'll lose their scholarship because of this and end up on the hook for a semester's housing they have no access to. I'm frustrated and appalled that the school would discharge a vulnerable student without making at least some effort to ensure that the student would have the means to meet basic needs like shelter.

Meanwhile, the re-admission process requires them to undergo psychological evaluations with staff at the university health center, which has been challenging. They have not seen a consistent professional for these evaluation sessions, and the extent to which the people they've been dealing with have been knowledgeable and comfortable with trans issues has varied. They've been told that it's "likely" they'll be allowed to re-enroll in the fall, which is good, but it seems to me that a somewhat naive (because of their upbringing) and vulnerable 20-year-old ought to have some kind of advocate within the university system, like the school equivalent of a guardian ad litem in custody and adoption cases, someone who knows the system and whose job is to make sure the student's rights aren't being violated, that the student knows enough to be able to get access to whatever resources might exist.

It pisses me off, and frightens me, that the safety net for a young person who couldn't go home to family ended up amounting to them knowing someone who knew a friend of mine who knew that we have a half-decent room we sometimes make available to people who need a place to stay for awhile. I've been wondering why this is the way it works, and this article at least helped put our local university's behavior in context with similar behavior at other schools. It feels both heartless and like a dereliction of duty. Without family support, there was nobody looking out for our housemate. I'm glad we connected, and that they didn't end up a headline or statistic. But it feels like such a near miss.
posted by not that girl at 12:59 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

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