I’ve been cognizant of my volatile mental health from a pretty young age, and thus have sought out various resources throughout my adolescence and adulthood. Going to college made accessing these resources much easier, as almost every school offers some sort of counseling, albeit at a range of cost, efficiency, and effectiveness. Throughout my life, I have experienced a lot of different types of care in different spaces. Columbia, undoubtedly, has been the best.
In the past, going to insurance-mandated counselors and psychiatrists had definitely left me traumatized. Like many other college bureaucratic spaces, I had to fight to receive care that was often ineffective and was always limited. The process of attempting to treat my mental health left me exhausted and unwilling to keep trying to tackle an issue that impacts all other facets of my life.
I didn’t seek out Columbia’s resources immediately upon arrival; my initial surge of adrenaline caused me to forget about the importance of mental maintenance. Inadvertently, I slipped into a depressive episode which peaked around midterms. Thankfully, I had the prior knowledge to realize that I needed resources, which led me to Counseling and Psychological Services through Columbia Health. I was able to get an intake appointment within a few days. My first counselor talked with me for two hours and got me another appointment the same week with a specialized therapist.
I was shocked by how seriously they took me, even though I specified that I was not suicidal, just cripplingly depressed. I felt like I was heard and taken seriously—something I had not felt when seeking treatment ever before. After just a few weekly meetings with my therapist and psychiatrist, I could see real improvement in my grades and social life. And more importantly, I felt better. I was so thankful that Columbia offered these outstanding staff members to me, free of charge and with unlimited visits. Without them, I would not be nearly as successful as I am now. Because of CPS’ ongoing support, maintaining my mental health has never before been easier for me.
However, when I told people about my experience with CPS, I was met with surprise. “You get unlimited appointments?! They saw you right away?!” I heard many stories about students not being able to receive care for three weeks and often being dissuaded by staff or bureaucratic details from getting help altogether. This is incredibly distressing to me.
Many of my peers described dissonance between what they were experiencing mentally and how they explained themselves to CPS. One needs to balance displaying severity enough to be deemed important, yet not so severe as to be shipped to Mount Sinai. For many young people, college is their first exposure to mental health care and learning how to effectively relay what is going on in your brain is extremely difficult under any circumstances. Because of my previous experience with psychiatric care, I had the vocabulary necessary to get me through the funneling process to get the help I needed. When asked if I was “thinking of hurting myself or others,” I said “no,” but that I was in crisis. When asked bluntly if I was suicidal, the answer was again “no,” but that I did suffer from ideation. This architecture of language isn’t intuitive and makes asking for help far more intimidating and exclusive than it should be.
My previous experiences in psychiatric spaces shaped the way I sought help, which was likely more aggressive than other students would think necessary. Additionally, my expectations started out very low. In this case, my experiences with marginalization came in handy as I know how to navigate spaces structured by need.
CPS is in a difficult spot. Priority and session limits are difficult for students, but I am still adamant that Columbia’s mental health resources are far better than those of so many institutions across the country. I am terrified for graduation, when I will have to find outpatient care, probably through Medicaid. I will most likely never get the level of care that I have received here. But again, not everyone who needs it is able to have even this experience.
Prioritization is sticky, and in this case it worked out in my favor. But I cannot unequivocally voice my support for a service that isn’t serving all of the population it claims to. Without a reconfiguration of our psychiatric space, my peers remain at risk.
The problem facing CPS is indicative of a much larger issue, which is that colleges still aren’t grasping the level of infrastructure needed to support the health of a student body. My ability to intuitively know the right language to speak with the people at CPS is not a skill set that should be necessary in college, when so many, across demographic lines, are in need.
Melissa Cook is a junior in Columbia College with major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and associated anxiety. Tell me your psychiatric horror stories at firstname.lastname@example.org or @makeshiftmelissa on Instagram. Her column, Pressure Cooker, runs every other Monday.
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