Letter To The Editor

The sin of mental illness

By Brandy Opondo September 29, 2021

I have been struggling with major depressive disorder since I was 17. While managing this condition has been difficult, I have always been able to do just that—manage it. In the early weeks of my summer Arch semester, however, it became apparent that this time was different; the lack of support systems and continuation of online learning proved to be the perfect storm. I felt myself begin to spiral, and, by the third week of classes, I was actively suicidal. I had a plan, a method, and an intent.

Instead of acting on this plan, I reached out to the counseling center where I met with Karen Johnson-Williams, who had been my therapist from December 2020 to March 2021. While I never had a therapist prior to Ms. Johnson-Williams, I am certain she exemplifies many of the worst characteristics possible for a therapist. In every session I had with her, she would tell me I had “done this to myself,” and routinely implied that I was just looking for attention.

Despite her inadequate attempts at supporting me, she did provide me with one helpful option. She told me that if I ever needed more help than the counseling center could provide, I should consider admitting myself to the psychiatric ward at Samaritan Hospital. So, months later, when the Arch semester arrived and I felt my mental health regressing, I contacted Ms. Johnson-Williams again to ask for more information about the psychiatric ward. I was assured that if I chose to admit myself, I would be able to not only return to campus, but that I would be allowed to make up any work that I had missed.

After some deliberation, I admitted myself to the psychiatric ward at Samaritan Hospital. After ten days of in-patient care, the medical staff cleared me to return to campus. Upon my discharge, Ms. Johnson-Williams and Isabel Norman, the sophomore class dean at the time, informed me that I was to be placed on an involuntary medical leave of absence. In addition to preventing me from returning to my studies—as had been promised by Ms. Johnson-Williams—it was implied numerous times that I posed too much of a liability to Rensselaer. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be allowed to return to campus in any capacity. This was later clarified to mean that I would not even be allowed to return to my dorm to pack my things. Eventually, with enough cajoling, I was given four hours to return to campus, move out of my dorm, and leave. I was escorted to and from my dorm room by Public Safety and was told that I would not be allowed to stay past 5 pm, even if I was unable to finish moving out in that time frame.

In the time since my discharge, I have been told that the reason for my forced leave of absence was my hospitalization and that a leave of absence was the “best course of action” for my mental health. One of the reasons cited for this determination was that I had “missed too many days of course work to reasonably be able to catch up.” Setting aside the fact that this determination contradicted both the advice of the counseling center and the promises that had been made to me, I feel that it is pertinent to mention that this reasoning is nonsensical; I had missed a grand total of three days of classes during my hospitalization which resulted in incomplete work on three discussion posts, one assignment, and one exam. As I am sure you all can attest, this amount of coursework is well within the normal amount expected of any student, and I would argue that almost every student at RPI has frequently had more than this amount of work due in a single day.

One of the many questions I posed that have gone unanswered by Ms. Johnson-Williams and Ms. Norman is what I should have done. Clearly, seeking professional help was beyond what RPI was comfortable with, but I have difficulty imagining any other scenario in which I chose not to admit myself and survived. The situation I found myself in was dire: I was actively suicidal. I had a plan, a method, and an intent. Had I not taken the steps I did, I would not be here writing this.

The administration has made it clear that they will remove any student they view as a risk to the Institute’s image, regardless of how these students are affected. I was assured that the decisions made were in my own best interest. I was not given a say, I was not given a choice, and I was not given support. When I needed empathy, I received condemnation. When I needed guidance, I received blank stares. When I went out on my own, I was told that I had no place at RPI. If they had asked, I could have told them what was best for my mental health. I could have told them that all I wanted was a little bit of help.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth. The 2012 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment indicates that more than 6% of college students have seriously considered suicide, and 1.1% have made an attempt. The assessment goes on to state that a college campus with 10,000 students can reasonably expect at least one student suicide every two to three years.

While I cannot promise that I will be the last RPI student to struggle with suicidal ideation, or that I will be the last RPI student to need mental health help, I can promise that I will be one of the last to ask for help from the counseling center.