On Soul Loss and Mental Health Services at Yale

Naas Siddiqui, BA, CPS, MA
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For several years, I blocked out my experience at Yale University as a trauma – my whole college experience was wiped clean from my mind. And by doing so, I’ve blocked out essential and unique parts of myself, too, for years. I experienced what I call a “soul loss” because I was unable to really process the gravity of the blows I received from the mental health services at Yale as a vulnerable, starry-eyed college student — or face the reality of all the stigma, discrimination and maltreatment that was being shoved onto me at the time.

I attended Yale from 2000-2007. Being accepted to Yale was a dream come true for me. I had applied early decision because I just knew that I belonged there. My childhood home was on Yale Avenue, and I seemed to have a mystical connection with the school. I felt like I didn’t have to make a decision because all signs pointed to Yale.

What does it mean to have a “soul loss”? What is it that I suffered? The Shared Wisdom Community writes on Soul Loss:

“Among the indigenous peoples of the world, it is generally understood that traumatic life experiences, when they are serious enough, can result in the fragmentation of our inner, vital essence or soul. Often, these traumatized soul aspects dissociate, resulting in a phenomenon generally known as ‘Soul Loss’.”

In soul loss, dissociated parts (dissociation is like a psychological equivalent to soul loss where we can’t access a part of ourselves) leave the body to carry the pain and shock of the trauma. It’s adaptive. And it leads to blocked memory and feeling incomplete, and maybe even experiencing depression and addiction from this loss, or a feeling of a lack of direction.

I experienced years of soul loss both during and after my experience with mental health services at Yale – especially the fragmentation, the blocked memory, the depression and loss of my vital self. I changed so much that I became a kind of shell of myself. My radicalism, my sharp intellectual capacity, aspects of my creativity, many of my charming eccentricities, healthy emotions such as anger, my fieriness, my gutsiness, did not feel accessible anymore and slowly faded. A feeling of disorganization tied to helplessness also permeated my life, along with a giving up on my sense of agency with my body as the psych drugs took it over. It has been a slow process of hard psychological and spiritual work and therapy to work on regaining these pieces of me. It is also a grief process. I even feel flattened as I write this. So much sadness and loss… And yet, I push on.

I was hospitalized four times at Yale, three times involuntarily, and once voluntarily. I was forced to withdraw from school twice, tied to the hospitalizations. I took a voluntary leave of absence once. I had to reapply a total of five times, because I was not let back in on initial tries. I wish I had never sought student mental health services at Yale.

I entered Yale in the fall of 2000. In the fall of 2001, I was involuntarily hospitalized at Yale for depression and suicidal thoughts. I had visited student mental health services (which was called ‘mental hygiene’ then) because I was spiritually drained from a relationship breakup and an identity crisis, and I couldn’t concentrate. The therapist, who I’d just met, didn’t seem interested in my story, and instead asked about my history with suicidal thoughts and depression – and then pressured me to tell her percentage-wise how likely I was to kill myself. I threw out a high number, dumbfounded and unsure what to say but wanting help. She involuntarily hospitalized me, and I was forced to withdraw from school. The bearer of bad news was the chief psychiatrist who managed to dismiss me in a way that made me feel less than human. My dream of Yale was shattered, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I felt like a falling Alice in Wonderland.

But I returned in spring of 2003. In fall of that year I again went to the hospital, this time voluntarily. I had been helping organize with Yale worker unions and was very emotionally impacted by the strike at Yale, and by how much the people who kept Yale running day to day had to struggle to get a fair wage. I participated in several actions with the workers, including sleep-outs in the cold in front of administrative buildings. It seemed hopeless as the administration would not budge, and this put me in a state of despair and overwhelm and anger towards my school. After entering the hospital, I choose to take a leave of absence that semester.

My experience in 2004 that got me hospitalized still remains dull in my memory, although it’s the most vivid of all the other times described. During that period, I entered into an at times very heady space, and at other times, a place of deep emotion. In my head, new ideas for projects blossomed and blossomed. In every human micro-interaction, because of my philosophies on life, I attempted to balance self-respect and love for myself with respect and love for the other, based on what I could garner from the surface and known history of the person (and taking into account privilege dynamics such as race, gender, socioeconomic class). My heart was so wide open that I was able to engage with conversations from people of all walks of life. Emotionally, I felt I could deeply feel what was happening in art – the layers of feeling that the artist felt while creating, and what was wanting to be conveyed. I was constantly in touch with divine creativity. I created a language to transcribe melodies with drawings. I had mystic experiences of cosmic bliss.

My psychiatrist, perhaps uncomfortable and scared by all my super-fast-paced new ideas, and detecting some slight paranoia which would come up at times, chose to involuntarily hospitalize me without standard grounds for hospitalization. After what felt like a traumatic experience at the hospital I left with dulling prescriptions and little support, and ended up hospitalized again after three weeks of being thrown right back into school. And I got kicked out of Yale once again. I came back after a difficult readmission, and graduated in spring 2007.

The readmission process was demanding. Given the recent tragic suicide of Luchang Wang (who would have been Class of ’17) linked to Yale’s withdrawal policies, it’s clear that Yale needs substantial change in its culture around treatment of mental and emotional distress. As a response to the suicide, Yale is changing some of its withdrawal and readmission policies, but to me, reading about it, the effort seems pacifying and not enough. The standard readmission process that I experienced involved taking two classes at an accredited university and earning at least a B, along with steady paid or volunteer work, recommendations from a clinician and supervisors, etc. In my first interview for readmission (you have to interview with a series of Deans), one of the first questions the Dean asked me was, “So you were thinking of killing yourself?” Which prompted me to cry. I wasn’t let back in that time. When I was finally let back in, one of the Deans lauded me on my straightforward essay. He mentioned that another student had written their readmission essay in a spiral – there was no way she was being let back in, he chuckled.

During my time with mental health services at Yale, I went because I had a naive belief that doctors know what they’re doing, and because I felt pressured to go. My psychiatrist at Yale was barely interested in the content of what was happening in my life, and more on adjusting (usually upping) my cocktails of medications. I remember withstanding being put on Zyprexa and gaining 30 lbs in a month, sleeping a ridiculous 15 hours a day, feeling drugged and lethargic, and asking to be taken off it, with my psychiatrist instead insisting on increasing the dose. I received the old adage and mantra of psychiatry that is still spewed today – that I had a chronic illness and needed to be on Lithium for life. This stuck with me for quite awhile. My ambivalence with Lithium was always present, stronger at times than others. After 14 years of being on it, I tapered off in a few months with the support of my awesome current psychiatrist. I feel like that drug was a chemical straitjacket, and that I was on it for so long because I was conditioned and scared into it, and didn’t have the support and belief that I could come off it until 2015. In my diary, I wrote about Lithium when I was first put on it: “It’s like looking at a tree, and it has no color and is dead.” I had lost my connection to the aliveness and spirit of trees.

Throughout all the turmoil at Yale, I got mostly A’s, A minuses, and just a few B pluses, plus the Withdraw on my transcript when I was kicked out (okay, I got a C second semester of Freshman Organic Chemistry). I remember especially loving my classes on Neuroplasticity, Formation of Modern American Culture, American Photography: From Daguerreotypes to Dian Arbus, Political Violence and Human Rights, and Feminist Perspectives on Literature. Now I can look back fondly, if vaguely, at organizing book drives for people in prison, hygiene kit drives for Iraqi civilians during the Iraq War, a disclosure campaign on Yale’s socially and environmentally harmful global investments, die-ins to expose paramilitary connections with corporations, sit-ins for preserving social services, and so much more activism.

The memories and the associated aspects of me are coming back. Really, what mental health services at Yale did to me was create a deep sense of distrust in myself. The services made me feel like I was an unwell person, and a person who didn’t deserve to be in school. I am in a place now where I have received so much support and validation from family, friends, and colleagues and clinicians that I trust in myself now. My soul parts are returning. The parts of me that were lost, are now being found, and the beautiful people in my life who I had blocked out are coming back into my life as I reach out. I feel like I am in such a state of integration and grace. I am feeling whole and again pursuing my dreams.

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Naas Siddiqui, BA, CPS, MA
naas has 15 years of experience in the mental health and substance abuse field in various capacities, including in peer support, training, research, clinical work, advocacy and strategic planning. Currently she is an academic writer and researcher with the Temple University Collaborative for Community Inclusion of People with Psychiatric Disabilities and works as the part time Cultural Competence and Linguistics Coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services System of Care federal grant. Recently, as a volunteer, she co-founded and coordinated the group Spiritual Emergence and Other Extraordinary Experiences at CIIS from January 2014-June 2016 and produced Holding the Shadow, a community collaborative social commentary theatre project for survivors of the mental health and substance abuse systems. She is especially interested in exposing, resolving, and repairing disparity and discrimination issues- racism, homophobia, sexism, classisism- in mental health and substance abuse services- including power disparities between providers of services and the people receiving services. She holds a BA in Psychology, Neuroscience Track, from Yale University, and a Masters Degree in Integral Counseling Psychology from CIIS. She is a long time psychiatric survivor and is psychiatric drug free (and beyond happy and grateful about this) after 15 years of psychiatric drugging.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. Naas, sorry to hear about this horrific story of mistreatment at the hands of antidoctors (psychiatrists) at one of our nation’s finest or perhaps it should be worst universities.

    Regarding this, “I received the old adage and mantra of psychiatry that is still spewed today – that I had a chronic illness and needed to be on Lithium for life.”

    This is an example of where I think patients should have recourse to legal options against psychiatrists. For example, in this case, I believe you should have been able to bring a lawsuit against the psychiatrist on the following basis:

    1) He told you you had a chronic brain disease based only on behavioral observation with no evidence that these behaviors represent a brain-based illness. In so doing he greatly affected your future life, college career, job prospects, wellbeing etc. He could be liable for major damages due to these effects.

    2) He gave you potentially harmful drugs which have no evidence of long-term efficacy yet told you you needed to stay on them for life. This is medical malpractice writ large. Any real physical doctor giving such advice for a known disease would be subject to medical malpractice lawsuits.

    If possible – and maybe it’s too late – I recommend you to consider bringing a lawsuit against the psychiatrists involved. I realize it may be too late given statues of limitations etc, or you may not want to revisit all these issues.

    But for you and future people encountering these ridiculous responses from antidoctors, there needs to be consequences for the psychiatrists, including large monetary damages and prison time for psychiatrists who misrepresent what is known about “mental illnesses” and psychiatric drugs to vulnerable clients. Seeing their colleagues going to jail and being financially ruined will make other psychiatrists start to think twice about how they practice. I hope this will start to happen soon.

    It occurs to me that a psychiatric legal rights website, with possible links to organizations that can help psychiatric survivors find legal counsel and advice, might be a good initiative to consider starting. Psychrights already tries to do this but I’m not sure if it is able to do it at much scale currently.

  2. Wow, Naas, sorry for this horrific experience. It makes me in some ways feel grateful for my bad student health counseling experience..at least that didn’t involve drugs or hospitalization, though it did involve incompetence. I had a therapist who attempted to do couples therapy on me and my roommate for a conflict (the two sessions we had for the actual conflict solved the problem, so I have no idea why this “therapy” was continued and wish I had refused to return). We were even told to go out to dinner and pretend it was a date?! Of course, that went badly since we weren’t a couple, and ended in a very awful living environment.

    Is it just Yale, or do other Ivy League schools make it just as difficult to gain readmission after a leave of absense (especially for mental health issues)?

    • Ah, but maybe us outsiders and commoners are better-positioned than academic elites, in terms of respecting and supporting each other through “fringe” states of consciousness? 🙂

      I’ve nomaded around the country and settled in a small artsy city for now… and after I’d been here a while, it hit me… spending this much time around middle-class culture was making me physically sick! The assumptions that come out of the well-off hivemind can really wear ya down. So I consciously started seeking out the cracks and margins more, where there’s a common understanding that we’re all mad here… and less of the illusion that cops, doctors, and other powerful institutions will help us…

      • Truly a brilliant comment, lily.c, so spot on.

        “Ah, but maybe us outsiders and commoners are better-positioned than academic elites, in terms of respecting and supporting each other through “fringe” states of consciousness?”

        Yes, academic mindset is overall narrow, cold, and analytical. Multi-dimensional heart based reality is not in this little box. It’s an uptight culture, not one of permission and creativity, but more so one of hierarchy, division, judgment, and snobbery, and therefore cut-throat competitive.

        So how can it solve any problems? It can’t, it just creates them, and then blames others through a game of smoke and mirrors to create confusion and illusion, to substantiate some “costly” research project or another.

        “The assumptions that come out of the well-off hivemind can really wear ya down.”

        So true, it’s very double-binding: either compromise your integrity and ‘play the game,’ or you will feel it, without mercy. When they start calling you ‘thin-skinned’ for calling out oppressive stigma and negative projections, then you know you are right about them, because that indicates that insidious social bullying is taking place.

        Indeed, it is wearing, and I agree, best to walk away and not look back. To me, that would be good personal growth, to get away from all that. It can be hard to identify when in the midst of it, but our guts usually know.

        “So I consciously started seeking out the cracks and margins more, where there’s a common understanding that we’re all mad here… and less of the illusion that cops, doctors, and other powerful institutions will help us…”

        Good for you, I’d call that going in the right direction, away from social insanity. When we don’t buy into these illusions, we are taking the steps toward personal freedom. Old habits can die hard, but seeing past the illusions of a sick society is what truly heals and transforms, and allows for something new and improved to be created in its place–which, to me, would be a society which really and truly celebrates its natural and inherent diversity, rather than to sabotage it, and in turn, sabotage society at large.

  3. hi naas- I felt and saw my “soul” leave my body at 17 upon the death of my father from cancer. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years later at Tufts U and spent twenty years regaining my health. I know exactly what you describe that you are struggling with and how it seems more spiritual than medical at times. Much of my recovery came outside of a clinical setting, Stay strong my friend!-Walter

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Naas. I absolutely agree today’s psychiatrists “create a deep sense of distrust in [one]self. The services made me feel like I was an unwell person, and a person who didn’t deserve” to live, in my case. Literally, my psychiatrist wrote in his medical records that I was “w/o work, content, and talent,” prior to seeing my work, or knowing anything about me. After seeing my artwork he finally realized it was “work of smart female” and ‘insightful.”

    He also “not believed by doctor,” apparently for three years, didn’t believe I was co-chairing an art program with 250+ volunteers, was a planning commissioner of my village, was the Charter rep for my son’s Boy Scout pack, and I was doing many other volunteer activities as well, as I was raising my young children. I had no idea the psychiatrists were the “job police,” and wanted to murder all the active volunteers and stay at home moms, apparently because we aren’t functioning as debt slaves for today’s “too big to fail,” fiscally irresponsible bankers.

    He also told me my name was “irrelevant to reality,” which I found to be an extraordinarily rude and ignorant comment. Especially, since this doctor was a Jew, and seven Jews I later worked with, earnestly sat me down, and pointed out that my name is an extremely religious name to the Jewish people. It’s quite staggering how ungodly disrespectful, and downright ignorant, the psychiatrists are.

    And in the end, this psychiatrist, after having been politely informed about all his “delusions” about who I am, written into his medical records – some of his medical records had been handed over to me by some decent nurses in my PCP’s office by that point. The psychiatrist had the audacity to claim my entire life to be a “credible fictional story.” And he expected me to sign a sheet full of clear stickers that stated, “I declare this is true” on them. What a loon!

    I absolutely agree, however, that the psychiatric drugs do make one feel as if one’s soul has been stolen away. But the good thing is once one is off the drugs, one can be reborn, or reunited with one’s self again. It truly is criminal that one industry believes it’s their right to stigmatize, torture, and murder so many, unrepentantly. My best wishes to you in your healing journey.

  5. Hi Nas. I’m glad you were able to tell this story and are reconnecting to the parts of yourself you lost at that time… College was a pretty toxic environment for me too, it sounds like you put a lot of work and energy into building community and meaningful resistance… but sometimes the hegemony is still too much and we just have to get out with our lives. I dropped out. I remember relating pretty strongly to a few things you wrote when I was on the Icarus forums back when. Good to hear your voice here too.

  6. Very moving story, Naas. During the depths of my psych drugs withdrawal and social stigma induced disability, I was told by a psychiatrist that I had lost my dreams. But lo and behold, contrary to this negative prophecy, I found them anyway and am creating them now in my life on a daily basis. Congratulations on your fortitude, faith, and courage to heal and pursue your dreams.

  7. I have a rather low opinion of American universities, especially of the prestigious ones. I went to Stanford many years ago. At least the environment was beautiful. Yes, if you want to think something into existence like a nuclear power plant or some other highly technical device universities are where you must go. On the other hand if you want to feel something into existence like a decent life the universities are more like cemeteries. A healthy response to a typical university environment is probably depression, despair, rage, etc.
    Going to a prestige university is presented to young inexperienced persons in high school as something like Sangri La. So if you are not overjoyed most of the time it must indicate that there is some flaw in your makeup. After all you are young and inexperienced and surrounded by brilliant other students and the almost godlike professors. You assume, fatally, that you are being told the truth when often it is just an opinion shared by powerful people. How much of all this wonderment can you take in and digest?
    The mental health people who claim to help you bring forth all sorts of labels which another generation will laugh at. They might just as well chain you to a wall in a mad house. Or put you on a ship of fools. Keep in mind it is all a magic trick, a juggler’s act. To the extent that one feels special at say Yale or Harvard, to that extent when you fall you will fall further, and it will hurt more. The thing to do then is get up and learn to smile at yourself for being tricked.