Pomona’s Mental Health Support System Hurt Me, Too

In the fall of 2014, I was hospitalized for self-harm. I was held involuntarily for 72 hours after a psychiatrist, in a 10-minute evaluation, determined that I was suicidal. My doctor, who dismissed my problems as an overreaction to “relatively small issues,” threatened me with a two-week extension of my involuntary hold when I told him of my reservations about medication.

Sound familiar? It should. Just a week ago, Samantha Borje PO ’19 published an op-ed in TSL about how Aurora Charter Oak Hospital and the Dean of Students Office had failed her. Two years ago, Yi Li PO ’14 also published an op-ed in TSL describing an unfortunately similar experience with the American mental health system.

I was allowed to return to campus, thankfully, but only after meeting with a psychologist from Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services and Pomona College Dean Jan Collins-Eaglin. During those meetings, I was required to sign a contract detailing the conditions for my return to campus. As you might imagine, I was too tired, emotionally and physically, to be able to give said conditions much thought. One night shortly after, terrified of the new medication that had been forced on me, I flushed my bottle of antidepressants down the toilet.

When the Deans found out about what I’d done, I was called into the Office of Student Affairs to discuss my case. I thought they just wanted to make sure I was okay. And again, I was wrong. Rather than trying to work with me through my anxieties about medication about returning to academic life, I was treated like I’d set a building on fire. I was allowed 24 hours to move into a new room, far from the close network of friends that I’d built, or face residential suspension. I was given a new, even more detailed contract, and informed that compliance with every aspect of the treatment plan that had been decided on (without my input) would be a condition for me to remain on campus. I was told that my having a box cutter could be seen as a violation of the campus weapons policy, but that they would give me “the benefit of the doubt.”

In retrospect, it’s almost comical, in a bitterly ironic sense, that I’d never come closer to suicide than in the week that followed. For the first time in my life, I had anxiety issues. I’ve bitten my tongue where I would otherwise be blunt and forthcoming out of fear that a rumor would have Campus Safety knocking down my door. I’ve blamed myself for what’s happened, for choosing to hurt myself and my loved ones. I’ve stayed up late into the night worrying that the slightest step out of line would have consequences. I think about how I’d won the first-year math prize, how I’d laid out plans to major in two STEM fields. I think about the research I’ve done in tissue engineering, of my aspirations for a career in evolutionary biology, and how close I came to losing all of that.

I was happy. I am happy. I love the stress, the work, the constant struggle of the life that I’d built for myself, juggling the constant lab reports and exams that come with a biology major with the constant problem sets and exams of a mathematics major. I’ve never been closer to people, more willing to stay up to absurd hours with a friend who needed help, or with one who wanted to argue about the cultural impact of Mean Girls. If you catch me on a good day, I am a picture of logic, rational and even-headed, sarcastic to a fault, and 'sane.' Not too many people have seen me on a bad day, but the scars on my arm are proof enough that I have had them.

The truth is, there isn’t a very sharp line between the good and the bad. Boxing off one part of my personality, the less desirable, less socially acceptable bit, isn’t something that can be done. And even if it was, it wasn’t that I’d chosen to become ill. To respond to mental illness with disciplinary action and self-harm with threats of residential suspension accomplishes little other than causing suffering among those of us who have already been pushed to the edge and to silence those who might otherwise seek help. The administration’s decision to isolate me from the community that I’d grown into, their willingness to risk me sliding further on the downward spiral, betrays a lack of interest in our wellbeing.

How ironic is that? Pomona prides itself on being an inclusive and supportive place, where people know it’s okay to be not quite okay, to seek help where help is needed. The sad thing is, it’s hardly surprising that this is the case. When the administration emphasizes that it’s okay to ask for help, but then refuse to show us empathy or respect, it’s not hard to see why so many students feel unable to speak out about their mental health issues.

But we can’t stay silent now. That three different people have written three different but unfortunately similar articles about the inadequacies of our mental health support system in the last two years shows that this is far too common of a problem to ignore. Our administration being willing to gamble with our health, futures, and lives, is far too serious an issue to be brushed aside. We, as an institution and as a community, need to empower those of us who have struggled and are struggling to speak up. Progress won’t come unless we fight for it, unless we are willing to openly discuss difficult issues, to press for change, and to change, where it is most needed.

So I will start. I am here, scars (quite literally) and all. I have a voice, and I am not alone.

Adam He PO '17 is from Shanghai and California, majors in biology and mathematics, yet knows nothing.

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