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Students, alumni recount experiences with mental health at Rice

Photo by Tina Liu | The Rice Thresher
Illustration by Tina Liu

By Amy Qin     11/6/19 4:02pm

Content warning: This piece contains references to suicide, which can be triggering. The 24/7 Wellbeing hotline number is 713-348-3311.

Editor’s note: Students were given the option of remaining anonymous due to the high sensitivity of the topic and in the interest of keeping their mental health private. Anonymous students who are referenced multiple times were given false names marked with an asterisk. All respondents were confirmed to be either current students or alumni.

The Thresher opinion piece by an anonymous student describing his deferral from Rice following a schizophrenic episode and the 2017 hospitalization of Michael Lu highlight stories of mental health on campus that are often kept under wraps. Hoping to shed more light on the topic, we opened a call for submissions to both students and alumni. We present their stories here and hope they provide a glimpse into the intensely personal, difficult journey that constitutes seeking care.

Seeking help on campus

When students decide to seek help for their mental health, many turn first to the Rice Counseling Center, located across from the Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center (formerly, Rice Counseling staff had been split between the Wellbeing building and the Student Health Center near Brown College). According to the RCC website, the center provides confidential, short-term therapy and may determine the need for referrals off campus depending on the severity of the issue.

One student wrote that she started counseling at the RCC this semester and was impressed by how quickly she was able to get an appointment.

“I feel so lucky that the resources at Rice are so easy to access,” she wrote. “I only just started counseling, so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of support. But I’m glad I know it’s here and available when I need it.”

Anthony Nguyen, a Hanszen College sophomore, said when he went to the RCC to seek help, the next open appointment was two weeks away. Within that time, he struggled, but by the time the day of the appointment arrived, he said his need for care had mostly abated.

“After all my breakdowns, after all the suffering I went through, I was finally able to come in and talk to someone, [and] at that point I was just very much over it,” Nguyen said. “I kind of had to get over all of the events that I experienced by myself.”

Emma* (class of ’19) struggled with suicidal thoughts during her time at Rice but was never asked to take a leave of medical absence. Though she had also had experiences with services off campus, she was pleased with the professional quality of care offered at the RCC.

“Every year people are writing things about how they are asked to leave from Rice,” Emma said. “I think that’s probably true, but I often think that if you are actively considering suicide, that is a good time to take some time off doing a really hard mental thing that Rice is. Taking a semester off Rice sucks — but being alive is more important.”

Seeking help off campus

Many of the submitted responses were from students who got off-campus care for mental health conditions too serious to treat at the RCC. 

One fall afternoon in 2016, Taylor*, a Baker College alumnus, went to the Wellbeing and Counseling Center and told the person at the front desk that they wanted to kill themself. An hour later, Taylor said that a counselor met with them and recommended that they go to an emergency room off campus for a psychiatric evaluation. 

Taylor said that although they technically went voluntarily to the hospital, they felt at the time like they could not say no.

“I was taken to the emergency room in the back of an RUPD car,” Taylor wrote. “I was not given an opportunity to get any clothes or medication from my room, and only had some of that because I packed a bag in preparation for the possibility of going to the hospital, and I had a friend who was able to bring that bag to me.”

Taylor wrote that they were told the ordeal would take a couple hours. They spent almost 12 hours in the emergency room before being taken to a psychiatric hospital at 2 or 3 a.m. They were released from the hospital four days after they had sought help at the RCC and could not return to campus until they submitted a plan of treatment and support to administration; altogether, they ended up staying off campus for a week.

Henry*, a Will Rice College freshman, said he came into Orientation Week in a depressive state that marred the experience for him. At the end of the week, Henry said that “something flipped.”

“All of a sudden I had energy, and I had a thousand thoughts racing in my head,” Henry said. “I paced back and forth across my dorm room for an hour and a half listening to the same song. And it was just like [I was on] top of the world.”

One of the residential associates at his college noticed something was wrong and reached out, which prompted him to visit an off-campus mental health crisis clinic, where he was prescribed medication. Henry said his RA’s support was more helpful to him than any of the other resources he had interacted with on campus, including the RCC.

Director of the RCC Tim Baumgartner said that the RCC offers referrals off-campus to students with concerns outside the scope of the RCC’s short-term-focused type of care.

“Many situations require ongoing intensive care for many months at a time, which is beyond the scope of most university counseling centers,” Baumgartner said. ‘Some examples would be active eating disorders, severe active addictions, major mental health concerns such as psychotic disorders or bipolar disorders that are not stable and require intensive care.”

According to Baumgartner, students sometimes prefer the continuity of off-campus treatment and will elect to pursue third-party services on their own.

“Sometimes students ask for an ongoing course of counseling even when they are functioning well because they value the ongoing support and continuity of working with a therapist over a long period of time,” Baumgartner said. “These students are given the option to seek treatment off-campus where they can continue working with the same therapist for as long as they want to.”

Blair*, an alumnus who graduated in 2019, said they saw counselors at the RCC for several months before they were referred to a psychiatrist off campus. They are currently a graduate student at Rice and still pay the mandatory $300 Health and Wellness fee that goes to support programs like the RCC, although they still seek care off campus.

“I’m sure [the RCC] is a great resource for people without chronic mental health disorders, but the fact that people like me that do have mental health issues too severe to treat on campus have to pay almost $300 a semester for a service that we cannot use is outrageous,” they said.

Blair added that they still refer their friends to RCC services. They said that they remain grateful for the RCC psychiatrist who took the time to sit down with them and call off-campus providers one by one until he found one that took their insurance. According to Baumgartner, the RCC currently employs one part-time consulting psychiatrist and will temporarily add another part-time psychiatrist this semester to assist with high demand.

“I wish that had happened earlier,” Blair said. “Because when you have a mental health issue, there are so many things already impeding you from getting treatment. So someone [helping you find off-campus care] — I probably would not have gotten treatment if that were not the case.”

Taking leaves of absence

Although students commonly cite a fear of being mandated to take a leave of medical absence as the main reason for their reluctance to seek care, such cases are very rare, according to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman.

“When a student experiencing a mental health crisis is a clear danger to themselves or others, the difficult decision to involuntarily separate a student may be necessary for the safety of the greater community,” Gorman said. “These decisions are made with a specialized team of professionals and treatment providers who have been actively supporting the student, and the decisions are typically supported by the student’s family.”

If students undergoing a mental health crisis need treatment beyond what they can access at Rice, they may be recommended several options of support, including a leave of absence, according to Gorman. Gorman said that each semester, there are approximately 20 students who take mental health leaves, but in the last three years only one involuntary leave has occurred.

“The majority of students who experience a crisis stay at Rice and do not take leave,” Gorman said. “That includes students who have been hospitalized.”

Jade*, an alumna who graduated in 2018, said she struggled with suicidal tendencies during her time at Rice and sought help after an episode in which she collapsed in front of Fondren Library. When she visited the RCC, she said that her counselor immediately asked her if she wanted to take a leave of absence.

“I lived in an abusive home with my parents,” Jade said. “I didn’t want to go back to an abusive household. If I drop out, my life is over. I was like, ‘Why would you tell me that? You know that me dropping out means my life is over. The answer is going to be no.’”

Taylor said that upon meeting with the Wellbeing Office following their stay in the hospital, they were informed that the university was recommending that they take a semester off. When they chose to go against the recommendation, they said they were required to write an action plan for treatment and follow-up with the Wellbeing Office and their magisters. Taylor took a week to prepare the action plan, during which time they said they were not allowed on campus aside from meetings with the Wellbeing Office.

Gorman said that if a student rejects a recommendation to take time off, their treatment team will help them discuss alternative plans of support.

“The treatment team will help to determine whether or not there are other reasonable ways for the student to stay, which may include living with family off campus, participating in a treatment program, finishing class from home, and other such options,” Gorman said.

Though she had struggled with depression since she was 14, Leah* was hit hard with a depressive episode in the fall semester of her sophomore year.

“I stayed in bed for days, only leaving to get food deliveries once every couple of days or go to the bathroom,” Leah wrote. “I lived like this for two months. October through December. Never going to class, sleeping odd hours, losing muscle mass to the point that brisk walking was impossible. I didn’t take my midterms. Then I didn’t take my finals. My roommate was like a blur, walking past me like she was on fast forward, while I watched the same show on Netflix for the third time.”

At the start of the spring semester, Leah received an email telling her she was the subject of academic suspension because she had failed all her classes. She said she was blindsided.

“For some reason, I believed that this school cared about me enough to catch me before I failed,” Leah wrote. “I emailed, then called my magister, begging for help, for any chance. She had no idea how to help me. There was no follow-up from the dean, from Wellbeing, from anyone, wondering how an exceptional student had completely dropped off the map.”

During her semester away from Rice, Leah said she experienced compounding trauma as she sought the care she needed. Eventually, Leah said she found a medication that worked for her and found a therapist who helped. She watched her matriculating glass graduate while she worked “shitty jobs” to make ends meet, coming back to Rice at age 22 to finish her degree.

“I don’t know [whom] to blame,” Leah wrote. “But I am tired of Rice saying that they have resources and that we’re a team and that everyone cares when I have slipped through the cracks again and again and again. It’s only a matter of time before you wonder whether there’s a structural problem.”

Finding community support

Many respondents described how the attitudes of the Rice community, including peers and professors, impacted their struggle with mental health.

Within her college, Jade said she experienced a lack of understanding regarding her autism and comments about her work ethic that still resonate with her today.

“People did not believe I was autistic, and I was called a slacker a lot,” Jade said. “I was ostracized from groups that I was close to. Even if these people were undergoing other [mental illnesses] themselves, when it came to me and another [autistic] classmate, we did not feel welcome. There was no assistance.” 

Taylor said that although adjusting academically was difficult upon their return to Rice, their professors also were generally supportive with the exception of one.

“Most of my professors were understanding, but one professor in particular expected me to take an exam that I had missed within a couple of days of returning to Rice,” Taylor said. “I wound up withdrawing from that class, pushing me below the minimum number of hours for the semester.”

Leah said that upon her return to Rice, she discovered the Disability Resource Center, which helps students with mental or physical disabilities get accommodations for their classes. She said that aside from one professor, most of her instructors were supportive.

“After I missed four classes in a row, my teacher sent me a cruel email telling me to drop her class, that my accommodations didn’t matter,” Leah wrote. “[My magister] advised me to drop the class. I did.”

According to Alan Russell, director of the DRC, the DRC helps facilitate requests for accommodations for students with mental or physical conditions, primarily through generating letters to professors. He said that in most cases, professors are accommodating.

Russell said the DRC helps around 300 students per semester, roughly 25 percent of which have mental health-related conditions. According to Russell, when he started his job nine years ago, there were only 109 students utilizing the DRC.

“I’m hoping that more students are coming forward because they’re feeling less stigmatized by the condition,” Russell said. “People with accommodations aren’t working any less hard. It’s just that the courses are made more accessible to someone with their disability.”

Following her struggles with her mental health and the death of her father, Jade said one of her Economics professors became one of the strongest sources of support for her.

“He was the only person who ever took me seriously,” Jade said. “I really was honestly off my rocker. I was traumatized. [My professor] was more helpful than anything else. He would change lecture topics for me if they covered hospitals — because we were learning about health systems and how they related to behavioral economics at the time. He would rewrite the lecture for me [with a content warning] and say to me, ‘here are the notes, don’t come to class unless you want to.’” 

Another student said she was pleasantly surprised at the support she received from the Rice community with regards to her mental health.

“Coming from a family which doesn’t believe mental illness exists, it was shocking to me that my friends and professors not only noticed I was withdrawing from them, but actually encouraged me to seek help and offered to walk with me to the Wellbeing Center,” she said. 

Peer support systems

Several types of peer support systems exist on campus, including the Rice Health Advisors , a group of undergraduates who serve as peer wellness advisors, and the Peer Wellbeing Athletic Advisors program, which similarly provides a peer liaison system between athletic teams and wellbeing resources on campus. 

According to Ellery Parish and Lindsay Mathys, co-presidents of the PWAA program, student-athletes face unique challenges to seeking mental health care, including stigma in the athletic community and tight schedules that often conflict with the operating hours of the RCC. 

“Some coaches and teams encourage open dialogues and utilization of Rice’s services and support systems, while others don’t seem to prioritize mental health to the same degree,” Parish and Mathys wrote in a statement. “Additionally, within the athletic community mental health conditions can be stigmatized as a sign of weakness, and there’s often a misconception that [an] athlete’s mental health problems simply require one to ‘tough it out.’”

Jordan Graves, co-president of the Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness, said that although she herself has had both positive and negative experiences with her peers in regards to her mental health, she thinks that overall, Rice is fairly accepting. 

“There is still a negative stigma around mental health everywhere, but it’s important to also focus on the positive strides we’re making,” Graves, a Duncan College senior, wrote. “The fact that RAMHA exists on this campus and gets attendance at mental health awareness events is in itself an amazing feat — there are people here that care about mental health and want to help other students make sure they feel they are not alone.”

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