Daring to Be Flawed: How to Start Moving Forward on Mental Health at Pomona College

On Monday night, I attended part of
a packed session on mental health policies, held in the Women’s Union on Pomona College’s
campus. As students posed questions about quality and availability of on-campus
care to Deans Miriam Feldblum and Jan Collins-Eaglin and staff members from Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services, I
got the sense that, even though this forum was supposed to be about communication,
there was a fundamental need that wasn’t making its way into the conversation.
Students who have struggled to get consistent on-campus care in a timely
fashion are desperate for signs that the administration understands how catastrophic it can be when our expectations for coverage
aren’t met. But the discussion keeps getting pulled in other directions.

We know that Monsour is at capacity because we have anecdotes of us and our friends not getting
appointments. We know long-term therapy isn’t available at Monsour because
common wisdom among students is that if you need a good therapist, you go
off-campus. We know that, for whatever reason, more students are coming into
college who already need psychological and psychiatric care when they arrive,
and that more students are developing this need during their time here. We understand that Monsour in
its current state can’t work for all students. But what we refuse to accept is
that nothing about this fact is changing.

My biggest frustration with this
whole situation isn’t that the mental health resources on campus have become
insufficient. It’s that the administration at Monsour and in the Dean of Students Office
can’t seem to own up to the fact that this institution essentially only commits
to providing care for students whose issues can be solved in a few counseling
sessions, and then pushes the rest of students’ mental health care outside the college’s purview. Whatever resources are being put into Monsour have not
improved the availability or quality of care for students in the past few years,
so at this point any assertion that treatment is there for anyone who needs it
feels, at best, like a slap in the face.

What I’d really like to see is an
administration that, instead of just reiterating that Monsour is at capacity, will
say outright that the current state of care is unacceptable and commit to
putting monetary resources and careful planning toward an expansion of these
services. I want to see a counseling center that, instead of saying it can’t
provide long-term care to all the students in the consortium, considers how
their practice of psychotherapy might go beyond brief crisis assistance and
glorified study skills into an exploration of the individual student. I want
students who have never had a good match with a therapist before, or who have
never been in therapy at all, to have a chance of forging a really productive
and life-affirming relationship with a provider on campus. I want students to
be cared for and thoughtfully guided through their experience with psychiatric
medication in college, because it’s difficult to advocate for your sense of
self when you’re too ill to have one.

And if developing a positive,
long-term, nurturing relationship between mental health care providers and
students on campus isn’t a priority for this institution, if short-term
counseling and one-size-fits-all psychiatry are all we ever plan to offer, the college needs to be honest with us about it instead of hiding behind platitudes
about campus community and personal development.

If we claim to be a supportive community that nurtures
students’ growth, mental health care is one of the biggest areas where that
support is needed. Mental illness, particularly when an issue is recurrent or
an episode persists for months at a time, wrecks one’s sense of self. You fall
into habits that feel inauthentic and realize upon looking back that you don’t
know how you got here, but you don’t like it. Thoughtful, individualized, and
extensive therapy and psychiatry are necessary beyond the moment of crisis.

After a yearlong depressive
episode, what ultimately made me feel like a person again was not the sum of medications
thrown at me but a really good therapist whom I continue to see a year and a
half later. In that time, I’ve learned how to be a better advocate for myself
in all aspects of health care, but particularly when it comes to my mental
health. It’s impossible to stand up for what you need to be mentally healthy
when your illness prevents you from feeling like yourself at all. I hope we
can move toward a system of mental health care on campus that puts the need
for personal development and support at the center of treatment and that remembers and reiterates the fact that a mental illness does not preclude
anyone’s humanity.

The issue we’re focused on right
now on this campus is mental illness, but the same could be said of any
illness, chronic or not. Getting strep doesn’t make me less of a person, nor do
panic attacks or psychosis fundamentally separate us from our human nature. The
symptoms of illness, especially mental illness, make us feel distant from ourselves and can impede the process of figuring out the complicated late adolescence we
share, all fraught with emotional and physical challenges. Still, these
symptoms that erase individuality and challenge self-love are never an
indication of lesser humanity.

As long as we’re told over and over by example
that the essential journey of self-understanding and thoughtful mental
health care is not something we can access through the services on this campus,
students will continue to vocalize our dissatisfaction with the dehumanizing
attitude that current policies tacitly endorse. As long as there are members of
our community more alarmed by the prospect of a neighbor who seeks treatment
for their self-harm issues than by the idea that our campus is full of students
who have committed sexual assault for which they will never face consequences,
the system will feel broken and unsafe.

Every day as I walk to class, I see
the banners on Marston Quad for the Daring Minds campaign at Pomona. Some of
the faces are familiar, and others are not, but in particular the messages from
members of the class of 2011 take me back to a time in my life when the phrase
“daring minds” would have made sense. I never knew Pomona’s class of
2011 because I was graduating from high school then, daring to dream of Southern California, daring to believe that I was sufficiently eager,
thoughtful, and reverent to pass through these gates. It felt thrilling, daring
to be so alive, and this spirit is what brought many of us to this campus.

Since then, I have had to learn
that sometimes our brave, collegiate minds can be daring in more dangerous
ways, ways we don’t always want. When the college puts our intellectual
creativity on display and celebrates the best of what our minds and bodies can
do, we need to feel the obligation to also acknowledge and love those uncharted
depths of the mind that are courageous and inspiring in less pleasant ways.

Asking this institution to re-examine
how we can go beyond our legal obligations into a system of purposeful and
uniquely supportive mental health care is a big request. If there’s any school I
can hope would commit to providing more and better counseling and mental health
treatment, it would be the Pomona that prizes our daring minds and is
just as eager, thoughtful, and reverent of our communal development as we are. 

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Fribourg, Switzerland and Raleigh, N.C.

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