"MICA: We need change in our mental health policies."

This piece is written as part of our Disability Justice on Campus Day of Action campaign.

Written by: Jessica He

          I am a first-generation Chinese-American, currently a student at Maryland Institute College of Art, and I live with depression. My battle with depression began as a result of growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, something that I’ve unfortunately seen often among my Asian-American peers. Unhealthy and emotionally abusive behaviors often come from native and immigrant Asian parents, since it’s seen as necessary in raising successful children. My parents didn’t acknowledge my depression, so I had to handle treatment by myself. Because of the toxic environment I was living in, I looked forward to college as an escape from home.

          Once I graduated high school and moved into my dorm, I expected a change for the better in my life. However, in my first month at MICA, I was sexually assaulted by a friend. The sexual assault convinced me that no matter where I go, bad things would happen to me, which sent my already shaky mental health plummeting. I completely lost my motivation to do school work, and I started missing classes and homework assignments frequently. I reported the sexual assault and requested the school investigate it, so proper action could be taken in response to my assault. The Student Affairs department told me they could provide academic accommodations while I deal with emotional difficulties that came with the assault and navigating the case, but I found them to be minimal and ultimately unhelpful to me.

          Student Affairs sent out an email to my professors stating that I was dealing with personal issues and may need leniency with attendance and deadlines, but my professors would have the final decision in providing such leniency. I expected that this vague email was some sort of “code”
that professors were told how to take and deal with, but it felt like it didn’t affect most of my professors. I was asked for details regarding my absences and inability to complete schoolwork, which made me uncomfortable as I didn’t want to disclose any information about my trauma and poor mental health to my professors, whom I’d only known for a couple months. Because I couldn’t provide a legitimate reason on why I would need it, no leniency was provided for me.

For the sake of future students who go through a similar situation, I call on MICA’s Student Affairs to better emphasize the need for accommodations to professors and provide training around working with students in difficult situations they couldn’t comfortably talk about.

          I continued to struggle with school while working with the investigators through a series of interviews. The interviews forced me to recall the assault in extreme detail which was taxing on my mental health, and the entire process was expected to take two months. This made it even more difficult to complete schoolwork or really do anything, as the emotional taxations of the process would last ultimately the entire first semester, but there was nothing I could really do since I wasn’t provided the accommodations I needed. The buildup of emotions eventually became overwhelming for me, and I began to self-harm as an outlet. I struggled a lot with self-harm- -wanting to do it but also knowing I should seek help and reach out to the counselors at school. I didn’t find a way to ease myself out of self-harming and I couldn’t find anyone to help me, so I kept doing it.

Eventually my friends and roommates started reporting my self-harm to Residence Life, and Residence Life started sending me to the hospital for mental health evaluations.

          Over the course of the year, I was sent to the hospital three or four times. Even if I would self-harm without suicidal intent, I’d still be sent to the hospital. The manner in which that they consistently chose to handle these situations leads me to believe that they didn’t know how to handle situations of self-harm and preferred to pass me off to the hospital. At the hospital, I’d be asked the same cookie-cutter questions each time, forced to stay overnight, and charged an exorbitant amount each visit. My family is fortunate enough to be able to cover the costs, but it’s extremely possible that another family wouldn’t be able to handle the costliness of multiple hospital visits.

After each hospital visit, I would be called in to meet with Student Affairs. I hated these meetings; I was told I was a burden to my friends and the community and that I was detracting from my peers’ college experiences because they felt obligated to worry about me.

          I told them my fear of going home to unsupportive parents, but they tried to convince me I was wrong about my parents without knowing or understanding my living situation. Eventually, I was called in for a meeting where I was told I wouldn’t have a choice in signing a Leave of Absence contract a month before the end of the second semester. I was given a week to pack all of my belongings and move out. In order to return after my leave, I had to provide documentation from any licensed professional that was not a relative and was qualified to treat mental illness and meet with someone from the Student Affairs department-- those were the only requirements.

          I saw a psychiatrist because my mom wanted me to seek out a professional who could prescribe suitable medication to me and got the required documentation. However, when I sent it to Student Affairs, I was told it wasn’t enough; I would need documentation from a therapist
detailing my emotional state and coping mechanisms. I was extremely upset that the school went back on the agreement they originally set, but I scrambled the get the additional documentation because more than anything, I wanted to continue my education. Again, my family is fortunate
enough to be able to cover all the costs of seeking mental health treatment, but such treatment could be out of reach financially for another family. This raises my concern for students going through the same trauma that I’ve gone through with fewer resources than I had.

Some students rely on the school having a good mental health care system due to financial restrictions, so when the system fails them through insufficient training or resources, they have nowhere to go when they need help and support.

We need to call for change in school mental health policies and services so students will feel safe and comfortable reaching out.

Stefanie Kaufman