Over my first year here at Macalester, I have had conflicting opinions about the way mental health accommodations are handled. The actual people and counselors I have encountered have been incredibly helpful and understanding about my personal situation, but the systems I have to go through to get to them are nearly impossible to navigate. For a school that proclaims to understand the complexities of mental health, I have found Mac very misunderstanding of the ways that my brain needs help.
My first encounter with this system came when I was looking for accommodations after a particularly hard week when I realized that I could not keep up without a little leniency and understanding of my personal obstacles. I decided to talk to someone and remembered there was someone that I was told to talk to at orientation.
However, it had been over four months and I could not for the life of me remember her name. I tried to find out who it was online and there was no clear “Email This Person For Accommodations” online so I ended up emailing the only name I could find. She eventually directed me to Robin Hart Ruthenbeck who was only available to meet me on a Friday, the end of the week in which I needed the most help.
This is not so much a complaint against Robin but against the fact that she is the sole person in charge of accommodations for a school of over 2,000 students. This lack of resources and availability because of understaffing in mental health departments has come up for me a couple times.
On Friday I met with Robin and she was incredibly understanding of my ordeal and was willing to help in any way she could, which was great, but the accommodations offered did not in any way match my needs. Often, Robin will send out an email to the teachers to ask them to be lenient with absences. My only problem is that I am not the type of student to miss classes, even if I am in a very bad place, because I get more anxious about missing something and would rather attend a class even if I am not paying attention.
I ended up meeting with her again a month later and had her send an email simply saying that I may be fidgeting or look like I am not fully paying attention in class and to be understanding of the fact that I am simply not able to sit still and keep my attention in one place. This was some consolation, as I had worried that my teachers thought I did not care about the class, but it still did not affect the fact that I cannot get my brain to read for the eight hours each day I need to for classes. I find more fault in the limited accommodations than in Robin. She was amazing at helping me, and even offered to help find a psychiatrist for a friend in another state because she knew I was worried about the friend.
After I sorted out accommodations, I was still in a bad place and decided to go see a counselor, a big step for me as I have had bad experiences with therapy in the past. I then found that I could not email for an appointment, but was required to call. I know that I and others like me have had a lot of issue with this requirement. I am an anxious person and the act of picking up the phone and calling someone can take me a few weeks to build up the nerve to do. I encountered this same problem with my friend for whom I had to call and make an appointment. Allowing for emailed appointments is just one simple, small thing the administration can do to accommodate the needs of the students with mental health problems.
I was recently on a “Mental Health at College” panel, and most of my fellow panelists cited that one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with their mental health in college was advocating for themselves. This process of having to call for an appointment makes it monumentally more difficult to advocate for our mental health needs.
As if that wasn’t enough, when I finally did call, the voice on the other end of the phone was aggressive and unhelpful. I was barely holding myself together enough to call, and the person on the other end was cold and rough in telling me the availability of appointments. In fact, there was no availability during the times of day I could make an appointment, and the only reason I ever ended up having an appointment was because I had a class cancelled. This woman made it very confusing for me, especially since I only wanted a one-time appointment and she wanted to sign me up for a weekly meeting (which I thought I had clearly not signed up for, only to get an email the following week reminding me of the appointment I had not made). The counseling services need to be more gentle in the manner it helps the customers especially if they require appointments only by phone.
In addition, I have not yet been able to go back for another appointment because there are never any available when I can attend. Similarly, for some strange reason the appointments do not line up with class times, so for one appointment, I will have to leave ten minutes early from a class. I don’t understand why the appointments are not made to fit into the schedule of the students they are meant to serve. Additionally, I am confused why they would even offer ten free sessions, but not have the means of providing that service. I would very much prefer to be able to use all ten sessions per semester before I have to consider going off campus and finding a counselor who works with my insurance, is close by, and doesn’t cost me too much. I don’t see why they offer the sessions and then make it nearly impossible to actually have them.
My last quarrel with the system is a seemingly insignificant moment of my phone call but struck me as very unaware of mental health problems. This was the question they asked before they hung up the phone: “Is this an emergency?” Now this may seem like a good question to ask, but I never know when it’s an emergency in the moment, or even how to define emergency at a personal level. That word just never occurs in my head when considering my experiences with mental health. There is never a time I can objectively think about it and say “Yes, I am in an emergency and I need to see a counselor.” There have been times when I’ve convinced myself that it isn’t that bad, or others have it worse, always denying the reality of a situation. I don’t think many people can tell an emergency situation until they can look back at it from a better place after they have metaphorically emerged into a healthier mindset. So this question they asked only served to make me feel like I did not deserve the help I was seeking out, which is not reassuring when calling for a counselor.
These aspects are only a few of the problems I, and a few of the people I’ve spoken to, have encountered. I am sure there are others. I am not sure why a school which purports to care for its students, and whose staff obviously do care and help, cannot figure out a better system to provide that care. It would be a much better use of the wonderful resources and people they employ if they could simply improve their conduct and treatment of mental health issues.