Category: Mental Health

Hey Barnumbia baes! ‘Tis the season for midterms, and that means all-nighters, anxiety, tears, and possible existential crises. It’s getting rough, and some of you, like me, might be doubting whether you’re truly qualified to be here.

I personally came from a small town where it was fairly easy to be at the top but also coming from a low-income family I always felt like I needed to “succeed” to atone for my parents’ sacrifices. So settling into the Ivy League environment was a bit of a shock for me as I realized I’d built so much of my self-esteem upon the shaky foundation of my academic success.

Here at Columbia, I’m surrounded by people who are not only intelligent and motivated and enormously involved, but also compassionate, open-minded, and welcoming. So to all you beautiful Barnumbians, I wanted to remind you that you are so bright in so many ways and have so much to give to the world.

The rigorous admissions process did not make a mistake. Sure, others have done more than you, but past achievements do not tell the whole story. In context of your upbringing, Barnumbia saw so much potential and brilliance in you. You absolutely belong here because you are going to set the world on fire. Getting a poor grade on one midterm, or even three, does not change that fact or doom your bright future. It just means you are getting settled in to a new life and are still adjusting.

Love and forgive yourself. Even if there are others who seem to be above you, remember that there will always be someone better, no matter how smart you are, and the fact that you have come this far should give you great pride. Your value is not derived from inborn talents or a grade on a report card, but by your love and compassion for your neighbors and for humanity and by your willingness to use your talents to make the world a better place.

And you’ve been doing great so far! Keep believing that you will continue to shine. Drink coffee and stay up if you must, but remember to give yourself time to rest and recover as well.

“Your very flesh [is] a great poem,” as Walt Whitman wrote, so read it well and let the words dance off your lips. Just keep going and soon you will look up and marvel at what you have done.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open-submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo Courtesy of Trevor Rukwava
Meet Trevor. Trevor, originally CC’19, has been suspended from Columbia College for the upcoming 2016-2017 academic year. We sat down with him to learn more about his situation and to understand how Columbia works to help students facing adversity and where it needs improvements.
What is your intended major?
I have always wanted to be pre-med. I was planning on doing neuroscience and behavior. I kind of wanted to do engineering but my parents talked me out of it, saying there are no engineering jobs in Africa. I had this dream of making electric cars, and an airplane with an emergency parachute system which deploys out of the top of the plane—the engines will be detached from the plane for weight management. However, my poor performance in the past semester pretty much kills my chances of doing medicine. I was considering switching to political science, or something. Not that I would be able to make a viable career out of it in my home country. I really don’t know at this point, but I’m trying to figure that out. It would be great if I could become a neurosurgeon.
When did Columbia notify you of its intention to suspend you for the upcoming academic year?
On June 8, 2016, Dr. Lavinia Lorch—my academic advisor—emailed me telling me that my case was going to be reviewed the following day. She told me that I was at risk of suspension because of my grades. She asked me if there was any information I wanted the Board to know. I received the notification of my suspension from CSA [Center for Student Advising] on the 9th of June. I read both emails on the 9th, so I did not have time to provide Lavinia with the information she requested. I was also under the impression that she knew my whole story.
Why do you believe Columbia choose to suspend you for the upcoming year?
According to Lavinia, “A suspension is not a punitive measure but actually an opportunity for you to make up credits back home (at an accredited 4 year institution) so as to ensure that you will graduate in a timely manner.” I think Columbia (or Dr. Lorch, I do not really know who made the decision) wanted to “help” me by giving me a forced gap year of sorts, to handle my stuff. After much persuasion, Dr. Lorch convinced me to take a medical leave of absence—which I could return from at any time. I agreed to this because, I was having a rather tough time and wanted a break. I also thought it would be more convenient if I did the paperwork while I was in America, so I would not have to fly to and fro again. The fact that I was expecting a medical leave, made the suspension more confusing, since I could not really differentiate the two.
As for the actual intentions behind the suspension, I can only make assumptions. Perhaps they didn’t want me to fail again and have to be considered for academic suspension, ironically, or expulsion. I had an almost nonexistent work ethic and motivation because of my mental condition, because they probably assumed that allowing me to return would lead to another bad semester. I may not be allowed to progress to the following semester if I don’t complete enough credits. I only completed 3, from one class. I failed 2, and dropped another 2—in order to avoid failing them. It was bad. I guess Columbia doesn’t have room for subpar performance, so I had to go.
How transparent has Columbia been throughout this process?
Well, they gave a day’s heads up. They also told me explicitly that I was suspended, and that I needed to take a year of classes and reapply. They also cancelled my I-20, which made it very clear that I wasn’t coming back.
How will this potential suspension impact your academic and personal goals?
I do not think that I can do medicine anymore. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it? My parents won’t hear it however, and have pushed me to apply to other universities in southern Africa. I must become a doctor, they say. Since I cannot do it at Columbia, I should do it back home. They never really liked America, and would call frequently to ensure that I had not been shot by police. The recent news has only made my parents’ resolve stronger. I made my own way to Columbia, and America at large. If I give up on Columbia, then I’m essentially giving up on the United States. However, I told Lavinia this information, which is why she said, “credits back home.” I am pretty sure that if I get into one of the two universities in my country, I will not be permitted to go back to America. Time is of the essence! My parents rejected the notion of a medical leave when I got home, claiming that my mind would rot if I stayed at home. I understand where they are coming from. They don’t want me to become like my older brother who was expelled from university because of drug addiction. He has turned to a lot of antisocial behaviours to feed his habit, including gradually taking everything I own. I doubt that I will still be in possession of the laptop on which I am typing by the end of next month. My parents suspect him every time the house is robbed, and he has been caught red-handed a few times. There is a lot of drama, which I would really rather not be in the middle of.
I do not think I will be allowed to switch to the engineering school, because of the suspension. Perhaps I’m mistaken.
Politics is not really something one can talk about where I’m from, for a number of reasons that I can not talk about because of the reasons themselves. It’s rather cyclic.
Do you think Columbia’s current academic suspension processes are fair? If not, how do you think they should be improved?
I do not think that the suspension policies are fair. I was given a single strike-out opportunity, and I did not even know that that was the case. If getting kicked out of Columbia is that easy, they should at least warn you beforehand. I tried very hard to ask for help, but my depression and history made it difficult. I did not know how to ask for help. I didn’t think that I was worth helping—depression talk. Perhaps, I was suspended because I said that Columbia sucked, I really didn’t want to be there, I was having the worst time of my life, and I felt like nobody cared about me. I said these things because that was how I truly felt, and they were multiple cries for help. I strongly suspect that this depression talk made my advisor think that suspending me was a favor, and I don’t blame her. However, these “issues” started at home and being home triggers a lot of them. I don’t have a therapist here for whatever reason, and I just kind of absorb the things that come my way. My cousin’s sickness and death, for example.
I wish Columbia had given me more support during the semester. I only got disability services help at the end of the second semester. At which point, my grades were so bad that my professors practically told me not to bother writing finals.
Do you have any advice for other students who may be in your position? For those who are also fighting depression?
To other students fighting depression, it is hard. People don’t understand how hard it is. They may tell you to ‘man up’ or fix your issues. They may assume that the illness is just an attitude problem. It doesn’t make sense to them, why someone would want to kill themselves when everything is ‘fine’. They don’t know how much harder it is to get out of bed and get things done when you are questioning the value of your existence. For most of second semester, I told myself not to think. I drowned all of it out with music; some people use other coping mechanisms. But being at an institution like Columbia requires you to think, and learn, and perform; to jump through hoops. I thought people didn’t care even though I didn’t really give them a chance to care. It took too much energy, when all I wanted to accomplish each day was survival. People do care. They may not always show it, but people care. Appreciate every person in your life, and know that you matter. Your life matters.
As for suspension, don’t let it get you down. I don’t really know what to say, because this is a problem that I am yet to overcome.
Have you faced issues at Columbia in regards to mental health and/or threats of suspension? If you would be willing to talk about your story (anonymously or publicly), email us at team@columbialion.com.

Welcome to another installment of Ask an Adult, where Rebecca Hsu, CC ’89, tells you what to do about life’s biggest problems. Have a question? Send it to thecolumbialion@gmail.com – God knows we aren’t qualified to answer, but we’ll pass it along! 

Q: It’s finals week — save us! What do we do about stress?

A: What is stress? I’m a doctor, so let’s start with the medical definition: stress is defined as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures.

As you approach finals week, I’m sure you understand. There have been studies to show that the stress felt by students taking finals is like that of soldiers entering a battle. Well, I definitely took a few exams where I would have preferred bullets flying by my head than writing the answer to the question.

First and most importantly, you need to realize what you are stressed about. You think you are freaking out because you need to pull an all-nighter to finish your Lit Hum paper, but what you may be more worried about is what to wear on your next hot date, since you can’t decide between the red pumps and the black sandals.

Let’s make it simple by starting with the obvious and easy. Find a way to RELAX both your body and your mind. This usually means taking a study break.

Here are a few suggestions for one:

 

Engage in some intimate time with another person. For those of you with your mind in the gutter, yes, sex is on the list. However, aside from the postcoital high that may follow by a good nap, it shouldn’t be the only option that comes to mind. A long walk, an interesting conversation, a nice meal, a massage, or any time spent in the company of someone you like can be very good for you. Even if all you do is vent about how much you hate whatever, at least you get it out of your system.

Do some intense physical activity. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. Go for a run (not in Central Park, alone, after midnight. This is a stress relief thing, not a suicide mission). Get some friends together and play a game that involves a lot of running around. No, shopping doesn’t count in this category, but do read on.

Do some shopping. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping! At least that’s how they handled stress in Great Neck, Long Island where I grew up. This can be great, but expensive. Window shopping, without buying, counts. Then you have a great excuse to buy it AFTER you pass your exams…

Do something quiet that lets your mind wander. Read a novel (one that isn’t required reading, of course). If you enjoy meditating, painting, writing, or any type of craft or hobby, now is a great time to break it out and dust it off. You liked it before school, so why not indulge a little now?

Make some noise. Sing, dance, blast that stereo for just a little while. Blow something up-that’s what chemistry lab is for, isn’t it? As an archer, I’d feel better when I just plain shot something. It could work for you too!
Just make certain you do SOMETHING. Cook, clean, create, or destroy something. Do whatever it takes to take your mind off the current problem. Remember that taking too long can be a problem, so whatever you choose to do, make it a quickie!

What SHOULDN’T you do?

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed. You will only become more stressed. Pain is a relative thing. Just because you think it can’t get worse doesn’t mean it won’t!

Drowning yourself in ANYTHING is not good. This includes, but is not limited to ethanol, drugs, sex, work, and swimming pools. Follow Aristotle-there is a balance to be struck that works.

The key to stress relief is to find something to keep you happy while your mind works out the details of how to handle whatever is making you stressed. You will be surprised how quickly that works or fails to work if you are too intoxicated to think about anything. Get yourself calm and you will start to ask: “What stress? I feel great!”

Ok, maybe not great, but as long as you do SOMETHING other than what you were stressing out about, you’ll find that you didn’t need to stress after all. To assist you in this, let me make a suggestion:

Wear the pumps. They work with everything.

I need help.

When combined, these three simple words create one powerful phrase. Yet, one could count the number of times they have heard Columbia students say this phrase on one hand. And that’s a problem.

Continue Reading..

With as much energy as I could muster, I held my cell phone up to my face and told Public Safety that I was locked in a stairwell in the Barnard Library. Weak and exhausted, I had been locked inside for over two hours. After two hours of being curled up in the corner, I finally was conscious and alert enough to pick up the phone and string my thoughts together so I could tell the guard where I was.  

After quaffing half a bottle of Merlot with a meal of anti-anxiety tranquilizers, pain pills, and heart rate lowering medication—all to help quell the intense maelstrom of anxiety I was feeling in an anticipation of a routine meeting with my adviser—I had wandered into a Do Not Enter stairwell, with doors that only open from the outside. For two hours, I was so drugged out that I couldn’t type my password into my phone to unlock it to call for help. This was at 2pm on a Monday.

Public safety came and freed me.

That was one of the many incidents I had during my first year on campus. My first semester, I self-medicated my anxiety constantly. From being too drugged up to remember what professors said during office hours, to missing classes because of severe hangovers, the semester stretched out in a blur of assignments, readings, wine from International, and a cocktail of whatever anxiety medications I could crib from friends and acquaintances.  

Consequently, I had trips to St. Luke’s my first year here, and even managed to give myself a concussion that forced me to defer some of my exams. I could have accidentally killed myself multiple times. In my drunken and high revelry, I did everything from accidentally steal books from Butler to drug myself up so much for an oral presentation that I have no recollection of giving it.

&

As early as I can remember, I’ve been a neurotic mess—prone to exploding in a paroxysm of anxiety and panic at any moment.  Although I hesitate to use formal labels, I’ve had varying degrees of panic attacks, social anxiety, general anxiety, and since I could remember (kindergarten). I’ve also had extreme, paralyzing fear of public speaking, oral presentations,  interviews, and authority figures. From chest pain and heart palpitations, to vomiting from the feeling of impending doom, anxiety has permeated every day of my life for the last 12 or so years.

In my fear, I’ve turned down  public speaking opportunities, ignored interviews for scholarships I had applied to, declined to be interviewed by my favorite publication when I had the opportunity, ignored job interview requests, and schedule my classes based off of whether oral presentations count for the grade.

And I’ve done an equal amount of things to cope: diet, exercise, meditation, yoga,  deep breathing, medication from friends—usually downers, wine, hard liquor, weed, ‘natural herbs,’ avoidance, compulsive book reading (salvation from my fear of not being intelligent enough to succeed in life), attempting to hijack my fight-or-flight response by  forcing myself to be even more anxious, and self harm.

What’s helped? Everything, to a certain extent. But most of what I’ve done is wildly unhealthy, dangerous, and unsustainable.

&

After an unsuccessful series of meetings with the counselors at Furman during my first semester,  I temporarily gave up on seeking traditional therapeutic help. It wasn’t until I had a day where I had multiple panic attacks and drunkenly self-harmed in the stacks with a pencil sharpener, spent 4 hours walking around Morningside trying to figure out whether I should go to the hospital, and then slept in Butler because I was too afraid to sleep in my room alone that I finally acquiesced to the demands of my friend to try to seek help again. I should have tried to seek help sooner.  

When I’ve told friends about my first year, all but one had ever thought there was a problem. No one knew, and thus, my ability to be evasive and operate with such stealth actually helped me avoid the need to get help. If no-one knew, there was no safety net that could be activated.

Although I won’t attempt to posit that therapy or psychiatry is a panacea, that’s where I started. I was too recalcitrant with Furman staff and demanded an outside referral. Eventually, towards the end of my first year at Barnard, I was able to figure out how to manage my mental illnesses without putting my life at risk and flouting social convention.  But that was only because I intentionally positioned myself in a way that would allow me to seek help.   

Seeking help for mental illness is difficult. There a numerous reasons people don’t seek help: social stigma, stigma from family, fear that the school would force you to take a medical leave, insurance problems, the cost of treatment being prohibitive, scheduling conflicts, etc. But if you wait too long to get treatment (the type that involves seeking help from professionals, and not buying weed with Venmo), you could end up in a dangerous spiral of self-medication and self-injury,  too drugged and dysfunctional to be able to ask for help at all.

Every now and then, another name of a college students appears in the news for having committed suicide. While I cannot claim to know what will help everyone, whether you’re having panic attacks, depression, hallucinations, delusions, suicidal thoughts, or other problems—asking for help is the first step in getting better. And pursuing that help, well that’s the best way to stay alive in the long term. Not to say that traditional therapy or psychopharmacology is always the answer, but it’s a start.

Disclaimer: Author is a junior majoring in a social science field, happily medicated and mentally stable now.

The Lion is the only campus publication that pledges to post all submissions that meet our open submissions policy. To respond to this piece or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com