Tag: mental health

Foreword: With Dean Valentini urging Columbia students to talk to Columbia Counselling and Psychological Services, I wonder if Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen had tried these services. Has anyone? We essentially seem to be unequipped to deal with catastrophes like this. This article is mainly written not to give the best solution, but to ask for solutions. What can we do better to prevent things like this from happening again? What improvements can be made?

Today I received an email from Dean James Valentini about the apparent suicide of an exchange student at Columbia College from Waseda University in Japan. It is not the first time since my first year in Columbia that I received an email like this.

But that is not the scariest part. It is not the death that is happening so close to us that we fear, but the oblivious bystanders.

The oblivion of this world.

My first reaction to the email is: if it happened yesterday, why is no one talking about it today?

Death at this moment has become a private matter. Only a small group of people are suffering in an unknown corner of this world, while the vast majority don’t even seem to care.

This earth, without her, keeps spinning around its axis.

No one knows that she took her own life that day. If not for the email, I even would not know anything about it. Even people living in the same floor with her may not have a clue. Right now, I am sitting in the Columbia Writing Center, and people around me seem to mind their own business, jumping and rushing around to fix their essays to get an A in the class.

But at the same time, someone, someone that I might have passed by every single day on campus on my way to University Writing, gave up her life.

The parallel is striking. The same road we choose to cross every single day may lead to a drastically different ending.

I talked to several friends about the news, but all I got are just oblivious, brush-it-off, I-don’t-know-what-to-say answers. The conversations quickly die off or move on to another topic.

Is it just me? Or is the world is so used to catastrophe and death that no one seems to care anymore? Or is it only my world that is so full of translucent fragile bubbles that when death tumbles on its feet near me, it is so easily crashed.

For those who are so used to seeing death, their world must be made from cotton, muffling their ears so well that they can easily move back to their original tracks when death missed them merely.

Yeah, my next-door neighbor killed herself, but I have a midterm tomorrow.

I don’t really know her. I need to study.

It is so curious how the world deals with the death of a stranger, as it happens so often.

On this campus that breaths of liveliness and ambition, it also buries lives. Very often.

But what role do we play in this ridiculous game of life, in an event like this?

We bear witness. For the deceased lives.

Is death or suicide still meaningful if no one knows about it?

If no one knows me in this world, is my life still meaningful?

Do we live for ourselves or for people who know us?

Do you still choose life over death adamantly if no one cares about you in this world?

If you live in agony and solitude, do you choose to live?

Or would you choose death, even when you are surrounded by people who love you deeply?

I have to end my writing process also at this moment because my appointment is up for discussing the paper due tomorrow.

I also have to throw myself entirely into another conversation because there are things that I have to prioritize as well.

I talked to my parents and my friends, but all of their responses reveal the inertness and the powerless of words when facing the topic of death.

When death merely missed us, the mixed feeling of regret, relief, fear, anger, grief, sorrow cannot be concluded by a simple word.

Many people choose to ignore that feeling because it happens every second. 1.8 people die every second, to be exact. By the time you finished reading this sentence, 4 people have died.

Th human mind seems incapable to deal with the fact that the world is dying every half second.

Just like no one can celebrate every birth of a new born child, no one can grieve for every death that is happening around the world.

We simply don’t have enough joy and sorrow for strangers.

Our emotion seems reserved and ephemeral at this moment. Reserved because of the emotional distance between the person and us. Ephemeral because of the limited time.

Are we oblivious? Or do we simply save it for people we care?

We approach the topic of death with caution. Isn’t it because that we are afraid that we will spread too thin in the face of catastrophe?

The world keeps spinning not because it is okay without her, but because MY world is okay without her.

We all have limited emotion reserve. I am really sorry that I cannot share a piece of my pie with you. I am truly sorry.

But at the same time, in the deep corner of our heart, don’t we feel a little lucky that we don’t know her at all?

Because of the strangeness, we can tip-toe dancing around her death, wasting the life that she no longer had.

We are innocent from the news, so we don’t know what happened, so we don’t care, so we are oblivious.

But can we keep pretending when Columbia sends us an email to let us be informed?

Do we have the right to choose to be uninformed when death comes near? I guess, we can always choose to distance ourselves from death. We can choose oblivion.

But, can we?

Should we?

I have to move on, eventually.

I am the bystander who chooses to bear witness.

I can choose oblivion, but somebody cannot. They have to wait for time to heal their wounds.

I fear the oblivion, but I understand it. Because in this world, every single second, there are someone who is overjoyed for life, and someone who suffers from it.

These two things happen everywhere at the same time.

They can be 100,000 miles, or the thickness of a wooden door from each other.

She laughs, I cry.

He cries, you laugh.

We begin to understand this world. We begin to understand the double-sided nature of joy and sorrow. We begin to understand ourselves.

We start to know life, a little by little.

At the same time, the frat parties are still on tonight next door to the campus.

If you need to reach out to someone regarding mental health, these resources are at your disposal:

Almost every conversation I have on Barnard’s campus involves the question, “What year are you?” and I never know how to respond.

I came to Barnard in Fall 2016 as a first year student with high-functioning depression and anorexia nervosa. I took 20 credits. I was pretty social. I did all my work ahead of time, got good grades, and went to sleep at a decent hour every night. While on campus, my parents asked me to see counseling services, and I did. There, the therapist asked me to see the medical doctor, and I did. They didn’t want me living on campus, so every day, my dad drove me to school for my 8 am class and picked me up after my 7 pm one.

Just after my 19th birthday, I had to take a medical leave of absence from Barnard. I went from the emergency room to an inpatient hospital, to another inpatient hospital. Four months later, I was discharged back into the real world at a healthy weight and with a healthier mindset. I was very ready to come back to Barnard for the 2016-2017 school year, feeling very confident and positive.

But Barnard was not as ready.

The Barnard Primary Care Health Services (PCHS) called me mid-summer and left a voicemail to inform me of Barnard’s readmission policy. “I’m going to need to see you in person this week to do a weight check on you in order for you to be readmitted in the fall… We’re looking at a target weight for you of about X…” The weight the woman said on the phone was 20 pounds lower than the weight I was at the time.

I was pissed-the-fuck-off. Then enraged. Then ashamed, conflicted, incredibly confused, and all this anger was towards myself. Why? Essentially, a doctor had just told me I could weigh less! Maybe even SHOULD!!! And furthermore, I had worked to become healthy for school, but now it seemed I didn’t need to be.

Then, the night before I was set to move back to college, I received an email saying that I needed a second “weight check” and wouldn’t be allowed to be on campus the next day. WHAT. I sent around some emails, made phone calls, and later that night, the Dean of Students approved my return to campus.

However, I was suspended from using myBarnard and CourseWorks for the first week of classes until PCHS “cleared” me. I wasn’t given a class year. I had to take the FY Writing & Seminar courses, pay for a room in the quad I never once used, and buy the first year meal plan, BUT was deemed a sophomore on the 9 Ways of Knowing curriculum. I had five withdrawals on my transcript. I was called back to PCHS every single week for another “weight check.”

HERE ARE THE REAL ISSUES.

I’m not writing to whine about some clinicians hurting my feelings and inconveniencing me. Also, it’s not just me this has happened to: I’ve spoken to other students who also dealt with this when coming back to Barnard after a medical leave for an eating disorder. While our experiences at BC PCHS are unfortunate, they’re telling of a MUCH greater issue in the structure of our school’s health care facilities. I will enumerate them below.

1. Barnard is a progressive, liberal, women’s college If there’s any place in the world that should be attuned to the medical and mental intricacies of eating disorders, it’s Barnard.

2. Barnard does not have a clear-cut, publicly accessible re-admission policy. This matters A LOT. Students seeking to come back to school need a tangible way to ensure they’ll be able to attend. My re-admission involved me driving into the city half a dozen times, waiting to meet with clinicians and deans to have very vague and unstructured conversations, STILL to be left with not being enrolled for the first week of class.

3. PCHS’s “weekly weight check” is invasive. I see a full outpatient team who all know me much better than Barnard does. I (generously) gave PCHS written permission to contact my outpatient team, but they declined to do so, and chose to focus on a number on a scale instead of comprehensive reports from my team.

4. Barnard ignored the “mental” part of mental health. As I’ve mentioned a dozen times (and will a dozen more), they focused on my weight. Not my habits. Not my social life. Not my happiness. Not my schoolwork. No other barometers of how I’m doing, besides the number. They never even contacted my outpatient team to ask about me. Once again, Barnard doesn’t seem to understand eating disorders.

5. PCHS created an environment of contention and discomfort. Overall, they made it very clear that seeing me was what was important to them. Not by talking to a team of my actual doctors, or talking to me. I still have to go there sometimes for insurance referrals. Every time, I can feel their eyes glue to my body, and give me that up-and-down look, trying to evaluate my mental health and well-being by my appearance. This does not exactly inspire my confidence in them, or improve my willingness to see them again.

Why Does This Matter Now?

I also wonder why I feel this is the time to write about my experience with PCHS. In our current political climate, I know there are more important, pressing, and relevant things. But, self-care is also incredibly important, pressing, and relevant in this environment. Barnard has sent emails to all students, urging them to take care of themselves and their physical & emotional needs during these upsetting weeks.

Additionally, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles written about stress culture, mental health, and the absolutely horrific amount of Columbia student suicides this academic year (SEVEN). I think it’s great that people are finally talking about these issues. And this is another one that needs to be addressed.

“Stress culture” manifests itself in a variety of ways, and neglect of physical health due to current emotional issues is a big one. Based on my experience, I don’t feel confident that Barnard’s PCHS is able to properly address these problems and get students the help they need.

*You can read the original post on Holland’s blog, cat moves.

If you’d like to submit an op-ed to The Lion, please email submissions@thecolumbialion.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.

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.

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