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‘Yoga is not going to solve my problems’: Students discuss mental health at Rice

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Morgan Gage     4/20/21 11:37pm

Editor's Note: Students interviewed for this story were given the option of remaining anonymous due to the 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, which have been marked with an asterisk on first reference. 

In November 2019, the Thresher spoke to students about their mental health challenges in the wake of students speaking up about negative experiences. Over a year later, in April 2021, the Student Association passed a resolution calling for improved support for students with mental health concerns. 

The resolution calls for an expansion of support offered by the Wellbeing and Counseling Center, including more counselors and improved access to psychiatric services offered by the university, improved care for neurodivergent students and students struggling with eating disorders, more representation among counselors — the resolution specifically mentions a desire for LGBTQIA+ and South Asian representation — and a concern about lack of online scheduling for mental health services.

In light of this resolution, the Thresher once again spoke to students about their experiences with mental health-related difficulties at Rice to offer more insight into persisting issues. 

Reaching out for help

When Edith* experienced suicidal thoughts, she said she called the 24/7 Wellbeing hotline and was told to call an ambulance. When she refused, she was urged to seek help from the Rice University Police Department, she said.

“My partner drove me to RUPD, and it was like one in the morning,” Edith said. “I sit in the waiting room of RUPD for like an hour. They were like, ‘So we have to take you to [Houston] Methodist [Hospital].’ I don’t know what else to do at this point, so I was like, ‘Okay.’”

Edith said that RUPD would not let her leave and that they brought her to Methodist despite it not being her first choice of hospitals due to worries about cost.

“They wouldn’t let my partner drive me, and they put me in the back of the cop car,” Edith said. “I was crying in the back of the cop car. I had never been in a cop car before, and it was a very jarring experience.”

When asked about this case, RUPD Chief Clemente Rodriguez said that RUPD transports students undergoing a mental health crisis to Houston Methodist due to their reputation for excellent mental health care services, but that a student’s request for another hospital would usually be accommodated. Rodriguez said that RUPD transports students out of safety concerns.

“Quite often when people experience mental health crises, there is the potential for them to unknowingly harm themselves or someone else,” Rodriguez said. “RUPD officers are trained to deal with individuals who could be a threat to themselves or others, so they’re the best option to safely transport someone in crisis to a hospital.”

Rodriguez said that officers are trained to deal with mental health crises.

“All sworn personnel, telecommunications officers and security specialists receive training on handling persons with mental illness,” Rodriguez said. “All Rice police officers receive a minimum of 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training certified by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. In addition to their initial training, RUPD staff also receive refresher training from the Rice Counseling Center.”

Rodriguez said that the refresher trainings are annual, although COVID-19 has temporarily halted the refresher training offered by the Rice Counseling Center. However, there is an online training option available.

Edith said that she was traumatized by her interaction with the officers, and that she felt that officers were not well equipped to deal with someone in crisis.

While experiencing mental health concerns that weren’t crisis-level, several students mentioned having difficulties reaching out for help from the Wellbeing and Counseling Center. Katelyn Landry, a Jones College junior, said that she found the process of scheduling an appointment intimidating. (Disclaimer: Katelyn Landry is the Thresher’s Arts and Entertainment editor).

“Their appointment-making system is a little archaic,” Landry said. “You have to call in between nine and five. I don’t sit down and have a moment to myself to think about what I need to do to feel better and get help until, like, 11 p.m., midnight [or] one in the morning. Then they’re not open, and so it is that cycle. I feel like they don’t make it as easy as it could be with online scheduling, [which] is a given in our world now.”

Timothy Baumgartner, director of the counseling center, said that for initial contact the counseling center will likely continue to make appointments via telephone.

“First, we need to do an initial assessment of urgency to see if the student should come in immediately and to make sure we are the correct service for them,” Baumgartner said. “According to other college counseling centers, historically when setting up online scheduling, an increase in ‘no show’ appointments have occurred.”

According to the SA resolution, peer institutions such as Harvard University, Princeton University and New York University offer online scheduling options. In recent data from an SA survey, 75.9 percent of Rice student respondents said access to a scheduling calendar would be helpful.

Baumgartner said the counseling center is exploring the possibility of online scheduling and offered suggestions for students hesitant to call to make an appointment.

“Students who may be anxious about making contact can contact us to ask questions,” Baumgartner said. “Also, while students have to make [their] own appointments to [ensure] that they are consenting to care, a friend can always make the call, explain that they are with someone who is apprehensive, and then hand them the phone.”

Landry said that while mental health resources are well- advertised to new students, she feels that outreach to upperclassmen is often lacking.

“If we had someone from the Wellbeing [and Counseling] Office just send an email: ‘Hey, this is what you do [to reach out for help.] You don’t have to be a freshman to need help or feel like you’re still struggling ... I think having it aimed at the entire student body in a more productive way would be really helpful,” Landry said.

For students that are able to make an appointment, there still is not a guarantee that they will be seen as soon as they would like to be. Karen Martinez-Perez, a McMurtry College freshman, said that she had to wait a month between her initial appointment and an appointment with her assigned counselor.

“By that time, it was pretty close to the end of the semester, and I was going back home,” Martinez-Perez said. “So we have one or two sessions, and then I went home and felt kind of shaky about going home.”

Both Baumgartner and Agnes Ho, directors of the Wellbeing Center, said that the Wellbeing and Counseling Center does not have a formal waitlist. According to the SA resolution, most students wait “two weeks or more before their appointment” with a counselor.

Martinez-Perez said that she understands that the Wellbeing Center’s capacity is limited and that they are unable to meet with her every week. She is still seeing her counselor at Rice and said it has been a positive experience.

“I feel like overall it’s been a good experience, with a few bumpy patches along the way,” Martinez-Perez said.

Several students told the Thresher they’ve successfully had instructors giving them extensions for mental health reasons.

“I really struggled with doing [daily responses for a class],” Arrya Abmayr, a Brown College freshman, said. “But [my instructor] reached out. She actually reached out to me before I reached out to her and helped me with setting a new schedule and due dates for [previous work] and directed me toward a seminar on overcoming writer's block.”

Distanced from Rice

When Edith experienced her first manic episode halfway through her sophomore year, she went into inpatient care, and, upon her return to Rice, said she felt uncomfortable with having to explain her situation to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman.

“I felt almost embarrassed and exposed that I had to explain everything to the dean,” Edith said. “I had never interacted with her before this.”

After meeting with Gorman, Edith said that Gorman recommended that she take a leave of absence; she ultimately decided to remain at Rice.

“[For] students who are first-generation or low-income, where are you going to go in that [leave of absence]?” Edith said. “I don’t have stable housing with my parents, and I couldn’t afford rent if I wasn’t receiving financial aid from Rice, so I really can’t take a year off.”

Gorman said that forced leaves of absence are rare and only used when there are no other options.

“It is very rare that a student would be placed on involuntary withdrawal and it occurs only as a measure of last resort,” Gorman said. “Students who have a serious medical or a psychological condition that they cannot effectively address while enrolled or which is likely to be severely exacerbated by the Rice academic and/or living environment may be presented the option of taking a leave of absence to assist them with a greater level of care.”

Gorman added that decisions concerning involuntary leaves of absence are made on an individual basis.

“It is important to note that each student is an individual, and [is] not treated as a policy decision. Alternative measures or reasonable accommodations other than a leave of absence will also be considered,” Gorman said. “There are many combinations of what can happen when someone seeks care, and each student's circumstance is viewed by an interdisciplinary team who help to look at the student holistically.”

Gorman said that Rice offers support for students who face financial difficulties in taking a leave of absence.

“Every effort is taken to support students who may have difficulty taking a leave of absence because of financial constraint, which includes finding care for them off-campus, assisting with them going home, assisting parents with coming to campus, and making sure the student is in a stable environment,” Gorman said. “The student's needs are assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Edith said that students being pushed to take an involuntary leave is reflective of how mental illness is treated at Rice.

“I think that the way Rice deals with mental health is just reflective of how much distance they want to put between students who they think are too mentally ill [and the rest of the student body],” Edith said. “There is an acceptable level of mental illness that Rice is okay with, something that can be treated with petting dogs, doing face masks and eating pizza in the commons.”

Transitioning back to Rice

To request a medical leave of absence, Adelaide* said that the process was laid out well and that she just had to submit the required documentation and wait for approval. The return to Rice, though, was not so simple.

“I’m coming back, and my registration and course requests weren’t done,” Adelaide said. “It was already a stressful thing to have a lower priority than returning undergraduates especially as an incoming sophomore getting started on a new major since I changed my major while I was away. I was registered for four credit hours.”

Once students are readmitted, Gorman said that they can register for classes.

“Students who take a leave of absence may submit a written petition for readmission to the Office of the Dean of Undergraduates by June 1 for fall semester, or November 1 for spring semester,” Gorman said. “If readmitted, students can register for classes through the regular course registration procedures in mid-June for fall classes, or mid-November for spring classes.”

Gorman said that the Office of Academic Advising provides support to readmitted students in determining their academic needs. While no formal decisions have been made at this time, Gorman said that her office is considering changing readmission deadlines to be earlier in their respective semesters.

Adelaide said that the Wellbeing and Counseling Center offered support with her return but that she still struggled with the transition.

“[For] the transition back, I had to meet with Wellbeing people pretty regularly at first,” Adelaide said. “They definitely did a good job of [making] a point to check in regularly, but I also felt like I was a little bit on my own once I got back. It wasn’t that they didn’t offer resources. I just didn’t really feel like they were fully equipped to handle what I was going through.”

Searching for representation

The SA resolution states that a survey of undergraduate students showed 84 percent of respondents said it was “important for a Rice counselor to understand or relate to [their] cultural, demographic, or personal identity.” While 28 percent of students identify as “not heterosexual” and a “significant proportion” of students identify as South Asian according to the latest SA survey, the resolution states that none of the Wellbeing and Counseling Center’s counselors are openly not heterosexual, and none are South Asian.

Robyn* said that questions about sexual orientation in her intake appointment — an initial appointment the counseling center uses to assess a student’s needs and pair them with a counselor — seemed abrupt.

“They were just, like, ‘Cool, so what gender do you identify as? What’s your sexual orientations?’” Robyn said. “I was just very thrown off by the fact that they stated that so casually that I just gave a fight or flight response. I was, like, ‘Questioning.’ Maybe asking people if they’re comfortable sharing that and giving some warning [is an option.]”

Despite this incident in her intake appointment, Robyn said that her experiences have been positive surrounding how her counselor has handled her sexual orientation.

“We haven’t directly brought it up before, because I’ve been working through family issues,” Robyn said. “But when [I brought up that] my mom was always like, ‘When are you going to get a boyfriend?’ [my counselor] was like, ‘Yeah, if you decide you want a partner,’ and I was, ‘Okay, man, I think you get it.’”

Lina Tiblier, a SA Wellbeing Committee co-chair, said that an immediate goal to improve Rice mental health resources is to increase staff for the Wellbeing and Counseling Center.

“Short term, [the goal is] increasing staff and then moving towards specialized staff as well who can handle eating disorders, who are specialized with neurodivergencies,” Tiblier, a Brown College junior, said.

James Karroum, a SA Wellbeing Committee co-chair, said that adding staff will help to bridge representation gaps. (Disclaimer: James Karroum is a Thresher’s Arts and Entertainment senior writer).

“If we have enough options, students [will] be able to be presented with different types of counselors to choose their preferences,” Karroum, a Martel College senior, said. “No matter how qualified an individual counselor is, that’s not going to facilitate students’ desire for matching student preferences like shared identity.”

In response to student concerns about counseling center resources, Gorman said that there are plans to eventually expand the staff.

“The university is recovering from COVID-19, so there is currently a hiring freeze. However, there are plans to expand staff in the Wellbeing and Counseling Center when we are able to,” Gorman said. “It is fair to note that the Rice Counseling Center has a relatively high therapist-to-students ratio when compared to other institutions.”

The International Accreditation of Counseling Services states that the minimum staffing ratio should be one counselor to every 1,000 to 1,500 students. The National Survey of Counseling Directors found the average ratio is one counselor to every 1,600 students. Gorman said that Rice has one counselor for every 685 students.

[4/23/2021 at 11:01 a.m.] This story was updated to accurately reflect when the SA’s resolution was passed. It was passed in April, not March.

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