re: A Mental Prison

Dear All,

After publishing A Mental Prison, the post exploded with readership faster than I thought it would. In less than three days, nearly 10,000 different people have stopped by my blog, netting over 12,000 views.

I have received a lot of feedback in the form of Facebook shares, emails writing in, and comments. I have tried to respond to everyone, but I thought the best way to clear some things up would be to write a little postscript for my open letter.

I want to start off by saying I have achieved exactly what I wanted: an open discussion about the current state of Truman’s approach towards mental health. This time, the message has been reached by faculty, alumni, and students alike. Some are disagreeing with what I have to say, and I have no issues with that — at least we’re talking about it.

Putting my proposals and ideas out there felt far better than having unchecked anger and discontent bottled up as the only way of coping. I understand change, especially in an organization like a university, takes time. But after two to three years of waiting, all I have witnessed is hiring new staff and consulting firms, adding to the arduous delays and the price tag of solving these issues.

Hiring more mental health professionals is a start, yes, but just treating symptoms is never going to work. I often equate it to a broken leg. We can take painkillers forever, but if it doesn’t heal right or at all, we’re always going to be dealing with it until we get the metaphorical splint and cast, so to speak. In other words, we should focus on the cause, not just the symptoms.

I have left Truman for a summer and semester now, and I think the fact I waited such a long time and still felt the need to publish what I wrote in the March of 2018 is a testament to the fact I feel the same things are an issue and want to help the students there.

These changes, if any, will probably never directly affect me — my connections at Truman and future generations may benefit from them, but I think my unfortunate experience at the university is something I feel very deeply about.

I want those who are capable to be able to reach their true potential without being held back by the lack of resources and accommodations. Unfortunately, for those seeking asylum from the absolute drought of sympathy and emotional support at Truman, leaving may be their only option.

I would like to make it very clear: I am not here to bash Truman State University or the staff there just for the sake of it. I’m not trying to get back at anyone, nor do I loathe the institution. My purpose is to bring to light the negative student experiences often overlooked by the administration and peers alike.

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Unfortunately, it seems resolving these issues have stagnated over generations of students. “J”, a 2006 TSU graduate, stated nothing I had described differed between then and now. They wrote,

I was used to rigorous structure, being able to achieve with little effort, and a peer group I had always known. Truman has to know these are all issues but they continue to ignore it. My brother graduated from there last year and nothing changed on that front in between our years. I had friends who were attending top-ranked schools (not just the “Harvard of the Midwest”) and they were shocked by how little Truman did to incorporate us into student life and how much busy work there was for us in classes. I was often spending more time on my studies than they were. It’s as if Truman confuses pressure with performance.

“Bx”, a former student, shared a similar experience.

I feel like I’ve been trying to put this same sentiment into words since I left Truman last year, and you hit the nail on the head. When people talk about their experiences with mental health at TSU I feel simultaneously disheartened that other people go through this, and relieved that it’s not just me. I, personally, had gone through an extremely rocky start my first semesters there. I had been struggling with depression/suicidal tendencies since I was a child that had, unfortunately, never really been addressed; the lack of structure, resources, and guidance meant that I spiraled pretty quickly, and I almost lost myself in it. When professors (specifically my academic advisor who was great) went out of their way to help me, I still felt like I was letting them down by not living up to the expectations demanded of me. Like you, I had been through what seemed like every nook & cranny of UCS, disability services, the like, and I’m still very grateful to those who were willing to help me, but it ultimately just wasn’t sustainable. A lot of the time I still think about how _I_ could have done better, and not how the university could have served me in a way that was more productive.

Another writing in, “B.B.”

Thanks so much for your recent post about life in Kirksville/at Truman. I experienced the worst mental health crises of my life during my time there, and I think it was due to a lot of the things you touched on: the geographical isolation, poor food choices (pretty sure I’ll wake up in a cold sweat 20 years from now screaming “SODEXO!!!” and flashing back to memories of sad chicken breasts swimming in that salty, oozy liquid), and shitty, shitty weather. There really is just this undertone of stress/despair. Despite my friends and high level of involvement around campus (I worked at the library, was a DZ and a Cardinal Key) for most of my college career I felt alone and totally unfulfilled. When I finally worked up the courage to call UCS and make an appointment, I had to wait a month. I was suicidal at the time.

I think I only made it through college by leaving after my spring semester junior year–I spent the first half of my senior year abroad, and the second interning in Jeff City. I think I might have dropped out if I’d had to stay in Kirksville. Driving out of Kirksville for good this past May was one of the most incredible feelings of my life. If I ever go back, it will only be to grab a coffee at Take Root and then [REDACTED], or something.

Your post was extremely validating. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I hope the administration and prospective students see it (my sister is a high school senior and I REFUSED to let her apply to Truman, low costs be damned).

And then, I spent a good fifteen minutes reading one comment over and over again with tears in my eyes, hands over my mouth.

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At the end of the day, I think this is why we fight in the first place.

Suicide is so much more than just a loss of life, it comes with absolute and certain devastation for everyone involved. I think the title of Kevin Hines’ documentary “The Ripple Effect” sums it up really well.

Suicide is absolutely preventable, although it requires an incredible amount of precision, enormous amounts of patience, and most of all, unrelenting love and support. Every life we save is a massive victory.

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comment responses

Dear “Doe”,

I do not agree with those who say you need to suck it up – however, the whole “woe is me, Truman is the worst” tone was very offputting. The food and presidents day comments seemed like you were just looking for things to complain about – most schools do not offer good food and have unfair meal plans, and I didnt know getting presidents day off was even a thing.

Getting President’s Day off was a joke. I’m not actually pushing for some kind of “President’s Day” reform, it was just a bit of school spirit humor. While we’re at it, why don’t we get “National Dog Day” off as well for the Bulldogs?

I just found it ironic Truman State University is named after a president, yet we don’t get to celebrate our “heritage” during the year. What I was trying to say is: students really do benefit from time off, whether it’s to catch up on work, get some extra sleep, or get chores done, so why not use President’s Day as an excuse to give them a breather?

Shortening winter break by a couple of days and sprinkling them throughout the year between longer breaks would be a great way to give students what they desperately need: time.

Whether they’ll use it productively or not, that’s up to them. But the opportunity is there. Instead of going months without any time off, students are resorting to cutting out socializing, making appointments, and, most importantly, sleep, to complete school work, neglecting themselves in the meantime.

That was complicated — let me elaborate.

Students, especially at TSU, are not taught to take care of themselves. Again, this goes back to the prevention phase of dealing with an institution-wide problem. If Truman’s administration put a priority on developing competent, autonomous adults (especially during Truman Week), then maybe the “freedom shock” that comes attached with moving away wouldn’t be as devastating.

Doc then writes,

While a discussion in improving mental health care is long overdue in institutions all over the country, weather, presidents day, and meal plans are not an effective way to contribute to that conversation, and it needs to be recognized what the institution can reasonably provide. So basically yes, Truman sounds like a crappy school, but it sounds like most of that is either the same at most other universities, or could’ve been foreseen and avoided by going to a different college that better suited your needs.

I completely disagree. First, weather and climate are a major contributor to mental illness, for example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — it is not something to be ignored. 

Studies have shown again and again mental illnesses possess both a genetic and environmental component. If the environment at home, pre-college, is conducive to a healthy, productive life, then a student with genetic predispositions may not exhibit any major symptoms or be classified under having a disorder.

However, if they arrive at Truman, where it feels bleak, unsupportive, demanding, and isolated, these symptoms may become very apparent. It is not “just” the food, “just” the weather, or “just” the policy. I will repeat myself as many times as I have to. This major problem is brought on by the combination of all of these seemingly minor issues, we cannot just attribute the struggles students are facing to one of these factors.

Suicide is a lot like a natural disaster. It’s unrelenting, leaves a path of chaos in its wake, and most importantly, sometimes comes without warning.

A tornado or hurricane is not caused “just” by climate, location, or geographical characteristics, but rather the combination of these, among many others, to create fitting conditions for the tornado to touch down or the hurricane to build up enough momentum to make landfall. This is when the result becomes destruction.

“My school has the exact same policy” should not be an excuse for poor preexisting policy to continue. Truman’s motto is “Don’t Follow, Pursue.” We shouldn’t be following what other schools are doing, which, obviously, isn’t working.

Also, allow me to ask you, how is a prospective student supposed to forecast they may develop symptoms of depression or a mood disorder later on and not have the resources to cope and treat it?

This is absolutely not something people just put into their schedule.

Finally, your point about going to a different college is really what people are doing. Truman’s attendance is reaching abnormal lows, according to the administration. However, for those who don’t have the freedom to choose another institution, they’re stuck at a school that seemingly does not care, which is what I’m trying to change.

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Dear “Kevin Arnold”,

The challenges a person faces after high school are the same regardless of your life’s path. College is no different from the workplace. You are expected to learn the environment and perform the task. I believe our institutions have yielded to student needs and offer reasonable services. It must feel like a heartless statement, but the time to solve your own problems has arrived. You set priorities. You face consequences. Ultimately, that’s your goal.

Being honest with yourself and your needs. If those needs require psychiatric counseling, that is beyond the college counselor role. You have purchased the privilege of educating yourself in an incubator that accommodates many behaviors and one that delivers access to many resources. You face the responsibility of matching that knowledge to the fairytale that you have crafted for your life. Don’t get bloated on the idea of attending the ‘Harvard of the Midwest’ because you know it’s not true and in all honesty, no one cares.

This sounds like the kind of lecture a high school senior’s traditionalist dad would give to them before being shipped off to college.

Life is not black and white and clearcut like this — people don’t just get up, complete a checklist, go to sleep, and repeat. Computers do.

Where is the variation and nuance, setbacks and breakthroughs people experience on a daily basis? What you are describing is a machine, devoid of flaw and personality, that does not flinch at the ever-changing world and never ceases to perform.

Perform.

This is the exact expectation from the people individuals look up to that is so unrelenting and crushes livelihoods. Again, things like this are not the cause for symptomatic mental illnesses, but rather contribute to a much bigger issue.

Personally, I was under this kind of subjugation when living at home. My parents, who I believed I owed my life to, hit hard day in and day out. There was no room for failure. I was always expected to yield peak-performing results all of the time.

Even after coming clean, letting them know the reason my grades were an academic disaster, my parents told me to pick up the pieces and “try again harder next time.” Although they were always financially supportive, I was just mentally incapable at Truman.

After experiencing two attempts on my own life, I hope nobody will ever feel so hopeless and isolated they resort to the path I spiraled into after my freshman year.

Here’s a wake-up call: today, we accept there are emotions. There are things such as failures. It is okay to be in pain, to be broken in some way. Our world is not necessarily a kind one, and this kind of “deal with it” mentality is the exact wrong way of going about treating people.

It is indeed time for us to solve our own problems, which is what this movement seeks to resolve.

As for your last statement, I do agree.

We, as students, are partly to blame for this whole phenomena. The whole “Harvard of the Midwest” mantra, while a joke to many, is a mindset that seems to grow on Truman students the longer they attend. Slowly, but surely, we begin to create this false sense of doom associated with failure or even experiencing setbacks.

B’s are suddenly considered catastrophes, dropping a class feels shameful and humiliating, and keeping up a facade of being successful while suffering has all become part of campus culture.

As a college, we need to break through this idea that being academically and emotionally vulnerable is not a bad thing. I think we are quick to support our friends, brothers and sisters, and classmates, but Truman students seem to put themselves last.

That might be a result of the pressure that the administration and faculty pushes onto students or the artificial need to “be okay” and available all of the time. Regardless, Truman students should know that their mental and physical health comes first, not academics or involvement. Taking time off or asking for help should not be superficially limited, but rather welcomed and encouraged.

Had I been convinced that I came before school and the various organizations I was a part of, my experience might have been different.

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Dear Katelyn, Rhonda, B. Jameson, J, John, Alexandra, Passerby, Bx, Melissa, Brianne, and Truman Students,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with me — they make me feel my words have meaning and power.

For me, I am just here to voice my opinions and, hopefully, someone will be willing to listen. The fact so many of you believe in my criticisms, proposals, and experiences — that speaks volumes to me.

I do not regret attending Truman. Through the pain, the people I met, and the hardening college experience, I learned a lot about myself. I think there are truly bright and passionate individuals attending the university, but their lights are dimmed because of the demons they’re battling with.

My goal is to ultimately allow them to recover and perform their best without being held back.

How?

I’m envisioning an environment where professors are understanding and compassionate instead of expecting and unrelenting; where students have the professional and social networks they need to succeed; where the student is the top priority, not grades, retention, or profits; where even though Kirksville is bleak and cold, the people are not.

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Dear Stephen Fones,

Though I feel so small in such a vast and seemingly distant world, I find it incredible my words on such a personal topic were able to reach you.

I am truly and greatly sorry for your loss.

Although I never knew Abbie personally, nor can I even imagine the level of pain you and your family must be going through, I can say I will continue to support efforts to change Truman State University into a community that, hopefully, will never have to lose another student.

One is already too many.

Sincerely, and with much love,

Lawrence Hu

If you would like to support Truman State University’s efforts in providing more resources and changing policy, please consider donating here.

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