Let me begin with a story.
Once upon a time, in a college, there was a boy and a girl. Both strangers, the boy and the girl were passing thorough the university corridor when they bumped into each other. The boy fell down. The girl fell down. When they got up and saw each other, it was love at first sight. And after that they started spending their time together. Many months passed. The boy finally proposed to the girl. But the girl rejected him. She broke his heart. The boy wasn’t able to face this rejection. He slipped into depression. He started using drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes to escape from his depression. His academic performance declined. His mentor (a senior) saw his behavior and took him to the counseling center. He received some counseling and things started improving. He started to attend classes again, went to the library, and started scoring good marks. He quit drugs, smoking, and alcohol. He overcame his broken heart. He became happy again. He graduated from the university. Happy Ending.
This was the story that was shown to me in a video on orientation day when I came to the university as a freshman. I was just 17 years old then. This was the image in my mind before visiting the counseling center: The center helps the students when they are going through a tough time, the center tries to solve the root cause of the problems of the students, the center is purely confidential and personal information is not shared with anyone. Overall the center had a positive image in my mind.
But I realize now that it was just a marketing strategy employed by the counseling center to attract troubled students. This video did not give the real picture of the functioning of the counseling center.
Many people including my fellow students do not know the reality about the counseling center. Whenever they see someone struggling with their inner problems, they advise them to visit the counseling center. The reason being the conditioning of students by the college and the counseling center with their utopian propaganda.
What I have experienced: Confidentiality is a myth in the counseling center. They say that your personal information is not shared with anybody. Anybody means ANYBODY. What they don’t say is that they are allowed to break confidentiality when they see you as a threat to yourself (like the possibility of committing suicide) or to others. Generally they contact the parents of the students whom they think might need some psychiatric help.
Back then I was an optimistic person. I used to think that the counseling center would help me to resolve my inner conflicts. That visiting the center would do some good for me. I have since realized that most mainstream “mental health” is more damaging than helpful.
At first, I did not think that there would be any stigma attached with the counseling center. I thought all sorts of people go there. It was also written on the university website that people who visit the counseling center aren’t mad or weak, rather they are showing some willingness to solve their problems. I never realized the stigma until I went there myself.
The decision to visit the counseling center has played a very crucial role in my life. It was like giving my future into somebody else’s hands.
At the center, I met the student counselor. She handed me a form with a questionnaire to fill out. We had a conversation, most of the details of which I don’t remember. When I filled out the form she asked me for the contact number of a friend. I gave the contact number of a senior girl to the counselor. The counselor called and asked her to come around 4 o’clock.
These days if the student counselors see any problem with a student visiting the center, they send him or her to see a psychiatrist.
The counselor told my friend that I needed help, that if the Deans saw me in this condition, they would tell me to go home. They were there to ‘help’ me. So the duty of the senior girl was to take me to the hospital to see the psychiatrist. And that day I and the psychiatrist had a long conversation, and in the end he prescribed me some sort of antipsychotics. Now I had to take these pills.
That night I received a call from the senior saying that according to the counselor, I had to go back home because it was vacation and I not had been allowed to stay alone on the campus. I had to leave campus and come back with my parents when the next semester started.
You see, when you reach out to the counseling center, they can even interfere in your personal life and your college life. You have disclosed your most private secrets to somebody and somebody used your secrets.
What is a better option instead of visiting the counseling center? Do seek any professional help if you need it, but don’t go somewhere your information might be used against you. Visiting a therapist outside the campus is less of a problem because at least they can’t interfere in your college life and put restrictions on your freedom.
I had not told my parents about me taking medications, visiting the counseling center or seeing the psychiatrist.
I took the medication for some days and I was feeling different. It was as if someone had put tape to my mouth and I could not smile much. It was the side effects of the medications. I visited the counseling center again to tell the counselors that I was feeling the side effects. They did not believe me. They thought it was the disease returning. They thought that I was not taking my medications. So they called my parents.
My parents arrived and they were told to sign a semester withdrawal form. The reason which was given by the counseling center people to my parents was that my mental state could get worse if I stayed there. They were forcing me to take a semester withdrawal. The counseling centers among all the universities have the same policy. Students are told to leave when they feel suicidal or mentally troubled. Students of Princeton and Stanford University were treated the same — they were told to go home when they visited the counseling center.
My parents and I did not like the idea of semester withdrawal. We thought it would be better to consult the psychiatrist. I had good grades. The psychiatrist, based on my previous academic records, told me not to take the semester withdrawal as I could perform well in the semester. So I did not take the semester withdrawal.
But my parents were told to stay with me in the apartments inside the college so that one of my parents (my mother) could monitor me taking the medications. I had to vacate the hostel I was staying in. I feel this amounted to discrimination against people with a mental illness.
The counseling center people are so smart that they even signed my signature and my parents’ signature on an application written in the first person, from my point of view, saying that I take the responsibilities of all my actions. That meant if I happened to commit suicide, the center had the record so that no blame could be put on the college administration. What I feel is that they were trying to protect the college’s reputation in case I committed suicide. However, I did not think they helped me even a little bit in resolving my conflicts.
They just order the semester withdrawal so that you can swallow the medications at your home. In my home university, taking a semester withdrawal on this basis is not a good option. They won’t return your tuition fees if you withdraw midway through the semester. The maximum that can happen when you don’t take a semester withdrawal is that you fail every course, meaning you earn no credit, but you would also not get any course credit if you do take the semester withdrawal. And the next semester when you come back to join the institute again, you are required to meet the counselor to prove that you are in good mental condition to continue your studies. A Stanford University student had to write an essay to say that he was in a good condition to return and in a way had to take the blame on himself. You would have to submit your medical report to the counselor. A Princeton University student even tried to sue the university for discriminating against him on the basis of mental health.
The counseling center people argued that so many people came to the counseling center and given the number of students visiting the center and the number of counselors, solving everyone’s problems would take a much longer time. It is not possible to help each and everybody effectively. I agree on this point.
Finally, I would like to summarize my terrible journey through the counseling center of my home university:
Do I regret going to the counseling center? Yes, I do.
Were my inner conflicts resolved? No.
Was my privacy intruded on by the counseling center? Yes, many times.
Were other students told about my mental illness? Yes.
Was my confidentiality broken? Yes, many times.
Do they really help the ‘mentally ill’? Not at the core, no.
What counseling centers generally do:
Give you a semester withdrawal (sometimes forced semester withdrawal).
Give you an accommodation where you can live with one of your parents who can monitor you taking medications (sometimes forcing students to take medications).
Keep your personal medical records with them.
Would I recommend anybody to visit the counseling center? Not highly recommended. Proceed at your own risk.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.