First off, I don’t want you to think I don’t understand your side of our interaction. I’m sure I looked like a small batch of chaos, ushered into your office by a woman from a completely separate department, mascara smudged around my eyes like war paint. You looked at me, your eyes widening, before you stood and extended a hand to greet me and welcome me to your office.
That’s where things started to go wrong.
My inner chaos was mostly contained, bubbling up between cracks in my visage but not overflowing. I had a handle on myself. And yet that still seemed like an interruption to you, and however your day had been going. I was an inconvenience. For a lot of people, mental illness and disability are things to be sympathetic towards, until the more difficult symptoms begin to emerge. Becoming hysterical, aggressive, non-verbal, or et cetera aren’t pretty symptoms, and aren’t easy for your average family member or friend to experience secondhand. To some degree, I understand this. Some of the closest and most supportive people in my life are completely out of their league of comfort with some of my symptoms, and when that happens they know to give me space but be around if I’m in any kind of danger. They aren’t health professionals, what else can they do?
However, if you are a mental health professional, I expect a bit more from you.
You have training, certifications, degrees, the list goes on and on. Someone, at some point, told you how to interact with someone in a crisis. You probably took some kind of test on it. And I have to imagine one of the first bullet points on the PowerPoint slide said something along the lines of, don’t make someone feel like their need for help is an inconvenience if it is your job to help them. This applies to every type of disability, both mental and physical. I knew from that initial interaction, more than anything else, that it wouldn’t be a positive experience.
You asked me the types of questions I'm used to at this point. Do I have an urge to hurt myself, or others? Do I hear voices? I told you that I didn't, and I wasn't, and all I needed was support. The transition to college had been stressful, and the pressures of school and a new place and new people were proving to be too much. I'd been living with bipolar disorder for awhile, but it was still a somewhat new diagnosis, not even two years old. You then asked if I was seeing a therapist. When I told you I wasn't, you asked me why, and when I told you that I hadn't found anywhere in town that I trusted just yet, you were put off, as if I didn't give a satisfactory answer. Finding a consistent and positive source of therapy is difficult, especially in a completely new place of living. Factor in cost and availability, it's almost impossible. Instead of giving me resources to make it more possible, you told me I should start looking.
At this point, I was beginning to get increasingly frustrated. In college visits and information sessions, I’d heard wonders about the campus counseling services and their availability. The panic attack that brought me there that day came suddenly, and after I was excused from class, I tried to figure out where was best for me to go. After calling numerous offices and getting voicemail after voicemail, I was mistakenly brought to the academic counseling office. The kind-looking woman I met with then brought me to the correct office: yours. And in half an hour all you seemed to know to do was make me feel like an inconvenience, and offer me zero resources in finding help outside of campus. You asked me what was causing me to be overwhelmed, and I told you a combination of academic pressure and unfamiliarity in a new place. You told me “that was college,” and that I needed to get used to it. You also asked if I was on medication, and when I told you I was, changed the subject. I still don’t see how my being or not being on medication was relevant. Finally, and in a moment of increasing frustration, I asked what other resources were available to me.
You handed me a pamphlet.
In the last decade, more so even in the last five or six years, mental health and disability visibility has been gaining momentum. Despite this, access to quality care and health resources is still a challenge, especially for those of low incomes and on college campuses. This isn’t news. But for many colleges, I feel as though mental health awareness has become a sort of trend. It’s easy to make posters and signs and organize events, but not so easy to actually create an environment without stigma, and with quality resources. Taking the time to do this is worth it, and the students will thank you. It’s invaluable, and will create a movement across the country that mental health services are worth supporting. But creating half-baked and underfunded attempts to gain publicity or increase admissions numbers are extremely detrimental, and leave students in the lurch. I recognize that the services I received are far more than many young adults receive in this country, and that is deplorable. In a lot of ways, getting a pamphlet is a pretty lucky break. However, we have to hold all of these programs to high standards in order to get anything accomplished. Everyone deserves quality care, end of story.
If you’re reading this, mental health counselor I met with, I’m not sorry. I’m sure you thought you were trying your best, and earning your paycheck. But that isn’t what your job is about. It’s so much more than that.
For More Information About Camille Smith, visit her website at camilleisadorasmith.wordpress.com
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