Student Counseling Services: Do They Really Help the ‘Mentally Ill’?

Varun Dhiman
35
1700

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.

35 COMMENTS

  1. Putting quotation marks around “mental illness” is meaningless if one accepts that there is a “thing” which can be named, even if not referred to as “mental illness.” If you think you “have” something you have fallen for the fundamental deception of psychiatry. All other problems emanate from there.

    • I don’t want to step on your toes here, Oldhead but it sounded to me like the only thing he was “having” was a rough time and he went to people who had previously promised to help him by talking about his problems and instead he was targeted as crazy and given drugs.

      I mean, maybe the author does believe in such a thing as “mental illness” but his point was that the systems set up to “help” do harm by pathologizing situational distress as symptoms of disease. That’s an important point, regardless of whether he thinks other people might have something called mental illness. He recognized that he was situationally depressed, not mentally ill, and the place that told him to come to them in that situation played a bait and switch.

      • Yes, the bait & switch. But the trailhead of that path is the notion that feeling the natural effects of life situations necessitates seeking professional help. People used to recognize and respect the fact that life is not all roses and rainbows, that bad shit happens to good people– that is the human condition, and we are all in it. Having bad shit happen and feeling bad about it is NORMAL, but we’ve been sold a bill of goods that says it isn’t, that convinces people that only professional “help” is the proper response. That is the first dangerous lie, and the other lies that follow it (diagnonsense, chemical imbalance, unmasking, etc.) are set in motion by the lie that natural supports are not good enough, that trusted friends are not equipped to handle the job of hand-holding through life’s rough spots.

        Not to put words in oldhead’s mouth, but I think that’s what he was getting at.

        • LavenderSage, I don’t disagree with you at all. But the people who need to hear that message are the counseling centers telling kids to come in and talk and then diverting them to psychiatry.

          I also don’t think the author intended to turn to “professional” help, he just went to talk to a friendly person in a time of struggle.

          • It’s important to, if possible, inculcate among young people a sense that psychiatry is not “cool,” that taking neurotoxins is worse than smoking cigarettes, and that people who diagnose their friends and use terms like “pill-shaming” should be ridiculed and avoided.

          • He went to the counseling center, which is officially-sanctioned ‘friendly’ people. Most college towns have pubs and bars, plenty of clubs to join, etc. where you can encounter friendly people. But when people are encouraged to ‘reach out’ in their time of struggle it is always with the message that the people to reach out to are officially-sanctioned ‘helpers.’

          • Yeah I think it’s Jan Carol who I’ve seen using the word ‘diagnonsense’ and I really dug on it, so I adopted it. I love wordplay!

            Bait & switch is exactly what is going on. I think most people actually believe that people who seek emotional support from the mh system are getting talk therapy, that they are getting listened to as they spill their guts about the situations in their life that are causing their distress. The only ones who know otherwise are the ones who’ve been in the system, on one or both sides of the desk. I think there are a lot of people who, if they understood the reality of what happens to people who “seek help,” would never utter that phrase again, but they are duped into believing there’s still a couch.

        • However to expand some:

          I mean, maybe the author does believe in such a thing as “mental illness” but his point was that the systems set up to “help” do harm by pathologizing situational distress as symptoms of disease.

          My frustration is more with MIA than the author, who like most MIA authors writing of personal experiences are experiencing these things for the first time. But reading them I sometimes think of people who don’t watch “pet” movies because they know how they’re invariably going to end. The basic theme always seems to be a variation of “I put my hand on a hot stove and got burned.” Followed by suggestions by readers about how maybe the temperature could be lowered, or a different sort of stove used, or meditative techniques that could be learned for dealing with pain from burns. Never a suggestion that “maybe you should just stay away from these places.”

      • And on which of these points do you think I disagree?

        Check again my comments about MIA’s editorial approach in framing these sorts of stories. There’s never a solid solution proposed at the end, or a suggestion that there’s a way out. This could have an unconscious effect of planting the seeds of pessimism in people’s minds, rather than an attitude of “f these mf’ers!” (I know you would put it differently). 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Varun. It’s not just the university counselors who work, hand in hand, to railroad people off to the psychiatrists. It’s many or most of the “mental health counselors” and psychologists, unfortunately.

    I went to a “holistic Christian talk therapist” psychologist, and on my second appointment with her she convinced my husband that it was mandatory I see a psychiatrist. For of all things, according to her medical records, belief in the Holy Spirit, and disgust at 9/11/2001, in late 2001. Wasn’t the whole world disgusted by 9/11 at that time? And all, according to her medical records, based upon lies and gossip that she had gotten, without my knowledge, from people who had raped my child (according to other medical records that were eventually handed over).

    So I agree, “mental health professionals” are really nothing but traitors to their clients, gossips, defamers of their clients to their families and all who will listen, forgers of people’s signatures, liars about the adverse effects of the psychiatric drugs, as well as liars about the supposed “chemical imbalance” etiology of the DSM disorders, and iatrogenic illness creators. Hope you got off the horrendous antipsychotics. Thanks for sharing your story and cheer up, buttercup!

  3. That film is more than a marketing strategy, it is false advertising and blatant propaganda. Especially if your confidence was violated, as it appears that it clearly was, repeatedly.

    I started out by going to my college counseling center (this was 39 years ago) and while I did not experience what you did in many ways, I still found it not only extremely unhelpful, but also filled with incompetent counselors. They were awful, and indeed, made me feel as though something were terribly wrong with me, because I was depressed. There were reasons for it, but they did not bother to probe that, and I tried 2 different counselors. The last one was the one that convinced me that something was wrong with me, whereas now, I can see that she was judging me, purely. Looking back, I can now understand the projection.

    Great truth-speaking here and well-written piece. I hope this article gets around, especially to the counseling centers and universities. I also hope you find your peace. Speaking your truth is a good start.

  4. Students must associate to defend their rights. It is legitimate to post counter-propaganda on campus’ free expression boards to warn of the danger of the Student Counseling Services.

    If I were faced with this problem, I will not hesitate to have A3 posters printed with the following message:

    “The Student Counseling Services will not help you!

    They can search to expel you from the university for one semester, or even definitively.

    If you go to see them, you take the risk that they destroy your studies!

    [QR code toward the article]”

  5. Varun your story about the effects of the drugs you had been told to take–how they killed your ability to smile and act human–got you accused of “non compliance” made me want to cry.

    Been there. Done that. Kept getting accused of going “off my meds” in college when I kept having Parkinsonism and mini seizures from 10 mg of Haldol. The psychiatrist claimed they never did that. My dorm mom told the guidance center I wasn’t taking them or I wouldn’t have the problems the Haldol was creating! This got me kicked off campus.

    Funny thing is, now that I have tapered off the 3 drugs I was prescribed for “bipolar 2” no one knows I’m off when I visit a doctor. They often say, “Wow. Your ‘meds’ must really be working well. No flat affect; you’re smiling. Emotionally stable. No longer depressed or suicidal despite your health problems.”

    I smile and say the “meds” are working fine. The Placebo Effect cuts both ways. 😀

  6. I had much the same experience in college. The center at my school was woefully equipped to help anyone, even though there were a *ton* of students struggling (The school was/is a pressure cooker by design. The “best” rise to the top. There are several suicides every year.).

    I wanted to go into a DBT group where I hoped I would learn some skills on how to wrangle my strong emotional reactions. While I was able to participate in the group, I had to get a therapist outside of the school because I was seen as “high risk.” The school wanted to make sure that it had its ass covered legally and I had to sign an agreement that no matter what happened the school could not be held liable for what happened to me.

    I ended up going to see one of the only psychiatric specialists for OCD in the area. She came to me highly recommended by the school. I went looking for help and found abuse instead. The psychologist invalidated my feelings, gaslit me, and told me that I would never get “better” without a drastic increase in my medications and a few months inside an inpatient facility.

    The entire time I saw this psych she was constantly trying to push me into the deep end of exposure therapy. I was struggling with strong contamination fears. One of the things she had me do was to pick through the garbage that she had in her office and then not wash my hands. During the time I was handling the garbage, I was to not think about anything else other than the fact that it was germy trash and to “face my fears” until my body gave in and just stopped triggering my fight-or-flight instinct.

    She disliked me a lot, mainly because I was not new to therapy or psychology. She’s one of those people who likes to keep her patients on a tight leash and for them to not expand their knowledge on anything. After our first few sessions, I looked at her floor to ceiling bookcases packed with books on psychology and asked her if she had any recommendations. She told me that *she* would tell me what I needed to know and stressed that I should *not* read about different therapies or talk to other people about therapy.

    While this is all going on, I was really struggling with stress from school. The breaking point for me was a few months into therapy when I had finals I needed to work on, grocery shopping to do, and errands to run. I didn’t have time to have a panic attack.

    When I politely told her this much, she told me I was non-compliant and said that I should not return to her office. She told me again that I’d never get better without her treatment, but that she couldn’t treat me until I had a few months of inpatient care and a new drug regime.

    Needless to say, I got worse instead of better. Any benefit I would have gotten from CBT because she used it as a weapon against me.

    I’ve got other stories about other times with other people that I’m sure I’ll share here. I’ve stupefied counselors and therapists with my experiences.

  7. Almost makes me wish I were back in school, dealing with the mental issues of others in addition to writing their term papers for them. I wouldn’t want any money for doing treatments, in order to stay vaguely legal, so I’d use receiving favors in lieu of that, the papers being for generating monetary income.

  8. student counseling service= weed out the riff raff. its worse when a professor or instructor gets a student to go for ‘help,’ but it seems there’s often someone, somewhere using coercion tactics to psychiatrize vulnerable individuals..it just plays out differently, in different segments of society.

    i remember…comparing prescriptions (i was on benzodiazepine abc…she got ativan…), being brainwashed into the bullshit…

    and then the terrifying Great Reveal. Long story…I survived, I am doing remarkably well, I am healthy…

    and now I find that their bullshit is never ending–this is their meal ticket, after all– but i can play my role, they play their’s…

    the play is ongoing. i manage to somehow contain my boredom and disgust. sometimes, when they talk, i see their lips moving…

    but i dont hear a damn word they’re saying. having said that, i know damn well what they’d do to me, given the opportunity.

    and the beat goes on…

    • I had a dedicated counselor in the disability support services office in my community college who took one look at my entrance exam and marched me to the honors center to personally introduce me to the director of the program and convince me to sign up for honors classes. She could just as easily have decided to steer me toward easy courses just to get me through school, as others had done in the past.

      My experience at university mirrors others who say they were ushered out with forced leave at the first hint of trouble. I never went back to university after taking what amounted to forced leave from my first semester but I’m still damn proud of my AA degree, and graduating from my colleges honors program.

      Some students need more support and all too often what they get is a message that maybe they aren’t college material and told to go home and this has long term consequences, not just for the students emotional well-being but for their economic prospects as well. It’s a devastating blow that many don’t recover from.

  9. I can speak from firsthand experience that this is definitely changing.

    I am a therapist on a college campus for nearly 4 years, my caseload is roughly 25 students at peak, maybe 40 students in and out the door per semester, and have never had to make a single psychiatric referral EXCEPT on a few occasions when a student who was already on psych meds appeared to be having side effects. If I believe those side effects might include self harm, I absolutely inform them that this is a possibility. I tell them what Akathisia is, and how in my experience, intrusive images caused by SSRIs differ from images caused by trauma, (as one example), and that encourage students to do research on their own and discuss with their prescriber so they can make an informed choice.

    I cannot advise students to consider a taper– I could lose my license for that– but I can absolutely provide education about side effects, and encourage them to review literature on their own, and often direct them to the RIAT reanalysis of Paxil Study #329. I help them weigh the pros and cons, and encourage students to advocate for themselves.

    I do visit students in the hospital and check all doses of medications– because, of course, typically the only students who need to be hospitalized are those who were already taking medication before coming to see me. If I notice a student’s voice is trembling, and that the dose of a medication has been increased, again, I cannot tell the hospital what I think they should do. But I can say, ‘I noticed that you tripled the dosage of this medication, and my client cannot sit still.”

    The counseling center on campus probably does make more psych referrals, but they do not refer every student.

    • You may be an exception, or your school may be. But I don’t think this has changed. Schools are very concerned with liability and try to “counsel” students with “mental health difficulties” to go on leave, at least in the USA. The confidentiality violations alone in this story are hair raising. I think the advice to be VERY careful about college counseling centers is very much on target.

      • I would definitely agree that counseling centers should be approached with great caution, and the school I work in– as well as a few others locally– may well be exceptions. After re-reading the lead to my post, it does sound like I’m saying things are changing everywhere, and I do not actually know if that is true. I tend to think that because a lot of the people I trained with are activists, and even at my group practice I don’t hear as much doctrinaire blather as I used to about people ‘needing to be on medication’ so they can participate in therapy. That part of Varun’s story really broke my heart, because I haven’t personally heard anyone peddling that twisted fantasy since about 2010. That is just the strangest idea I’ve every heard of– I’ve always felt that folks who were medicated are often harder to work with in psychotherapy, unless their symptoms are so intense l that they can barely make it to the consulting room. We don’t work with people who are stoned or drunk, so why is it better to work with people who are chemically altered in some other way?

        If I were a student, I would want to know exactly who I was meeting with, and be able to have a look at the clinician’s website, as well as checking for any actions taken against them by a licensing board– at a minimum. Better yet would be to have referrals from another student.

  10. Ghastly and I can totally see how this happens. Whats happening is that butt-covering and psychiatric ideology is trumping your own interests.

    In the UK I’ve found that using a private psychologist, although it costs £65 an hour, puts you in charge. Technically they could still break your confidentiality in dire circumstances, but not as badly as an NHS clinical psychologist, who is basically getting intel for the psychiatrist.

    I can totally see how this all snowballs out of control and you end up doped up and unable to get back to school. I know because it happened to us. We were told antipsychotics would “get you back into life” (lol) and they would work on helping get back to school. They did no such thing. Instead, when the drugs make you even worse, the psychologist tips off the psychiatrists who threatens sectioning and wants to do higher dose meds. And so a problem in your life becomes life in a coma.

    Its so hard because basically its best to keep out of the MH system, but in the early days you don’t know enough and if someone told you how bad the system is, then you wouldn’t believe them.

    It sounds like you are back on track again and well done you for that.

    I personally think these problems need compassion and commitment from those around you to be there 24/7, not judge, not impinge on your agency, and listen, listen, listen. Then you have to try and do stuff, whatever it is you normally do, maybe supported by someone alongside you. I know thats a bit idealistic but basically the more social hand-holding the better.

    Loads of people come through this great, I think thats where we might be heading, but many others fall victims to the system or end up tragically. Crossing everything for you!

  11. Varun, I was a college student also when I started therapy. This was during the summer. My choice to go outside the campus counseling center was driven by my desire for privacy. I was so scared that anyone might find out I was going to counseling. I was scared that someone might find out I had an eating disorder. I also personally knew the college counselor from another situation. So I chose to go to the local counseling center in town.

    This was one of the worst decisions of my life. Therapy caused me to become self-absorbed, thinking there MUST be something wrong with me, that is, fundamentally wrong with my character that caused me to have an eating disorder. What I did not realize was that the diet itself, that I had gotten out of a popular diet book, had caused the entire problem. People do not realize the serious consequences of drastic restrictive diets. You end up stuck in it, and further weight loss and low caloric intake only worsens a person’s distorted ideas about losing yet more weight. It is an endless cycle. A trap.

    I didn’t realize this, though. I wondered if a character flaw caused it. Those therapist said, “You have an eating disorder so you must have an enmeshed mother.” This was a stereotype they had back then, and it is so false in my case that it is laughable. Then they said, “You have an eating disorder because of perfectionism.” This, too, didn’t fit me at all. They even tried, “We can’t help you, so your eating disorder is trivial and you’re probably faking it.” I latched onto “chemical imbalance” because I wanted to find some cause of the ED. That must be it! Then, drugs might fix it, right? I started asking for drugs. They claimed I was nothing but a spoiled Jewish girl.

    They did indeed violate my confidentiality, and they also violated other patients’ confidentiality. I went to an emergency room on advice from my roommate. She had told me that “If you go to the ER then they will give you drugs. They HAVE to,” she said. I was hoping they would hear me, finally, and give me the magic pill that would stop my ED.

    Instead, those idiots called my parents and I had not authorized for them to do so. I was 25 years old at the time and not a minor.

    They never heard me. They continued to drug me and couldn’t figure out why I didn’t “respond.” They gave me more. They diagnosed me with schiz but I did not have any schiz characteristics such as the ability to hear voices. It was so unfounded….and I was stuck on disability payments for the next 35 years.

    I regret the decision to start therapy. I regret continuing the therapy and my own failure to recognize that it was addicting. I regret believing them and seeing them as authority figures for as long as i did. I was 23 when I started therapy. I was 56 when I finally left that world. I am 61 now, employed at last, and finally ending disability payments.

    It is so quick and easy to fall into that trap. It will take a long, long time to get out of it.

  12. Varun,
    So you want to reveal the truth about the university mental health system? Why not reveal the truth of our ENTIRE mental health system? Dr Steven James Bartlett’s book “Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: the needs to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health” just might help your cause.
    Says he,

    “As a result of human recalcitrance to acknowledge our own pathology, in the history of behavioral science, and in particular in the history of psychology and psychiatry, almost no effort has been made to gain an understanding of human pathology that has its roots in normal–as opposed to abnormal psychology. Primarily among psychiatrists there have been a few notable exceptions, including Menninger, Fromm, Peck, Milton Erickson, and others whose observations are discussed in Bartlett (2005), all of whom have had the courage to recognize the pathological constitution of the ordinary person who so often is a willing participant in inflicting suffering, death, and destruction. But despite the work of these few researchers, psychology and psychiatry have doggedly reserved the term `pathology’ exclusively for application to individuals and groups judged to be abnormal, that is, whose psychology deviates from the norm. This, as Bartlett (2005) attempts to show, is short-sightedness in the extreme”