Mental Health Part III: Falling Apart
Defiesta: Falling Apart
Part II: My bipolar disorder and Yale
Bolling: OCD and Yale's silence
Nick Defiesta, struggling with grief, calls for a change in attitudes on mental health — and a shift in Yale's campus culture.
By Nick Defiesta - Staff Columnist
Web design by Qingyang Chen and Soham Sankaran / Illustration by Annelisa Leinbach

T
here was a lot of bravery in Rachel Williams’ ’17 story “We Just Can’t Have You Here.” Bravery in how she dealt with the callousness of her treatment, bravery in penning a narrative about her experience that could be read by virtually all of her peers, teachers, family.

But in the month since Williams’ column, it was another act of courage — one that is easily lost in her piece — that has stuck with me: her willingness to admit to herself that she was not, in fact, OK.

That small act might seem trivial. But it’s not, especially at Yale. In a campus filled to the brim with academic overachievement, social pressures and far too few sunny days, our mental health is inevitably tested.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by contributing to this environment, even if we’re doing so passively. By accepting this paradigm — where extracurricular activities can consume more hours per week than a full-time job, the society tap process neglects to consider juniors’ wellbeing and the race for internships begins almost as soon as the school year does — most of us, in one way or another, play an indirect role in perpetuating the unhealthy atmosphere at Yale. We all feel pressure to be “OK.”

I’m guilty of this, too. When my little brother passed away this summer, amidst all the shock and grief and heartache, my mom asked whether I was sure I wanted to come back to New Haven right away. Of course I did, I thought, I’m OK enough to head back to school.

Before leaving home, I set up an appointment at Yale Mental Health & Counseling. For what it’s worth, my experience with Yale Health was excellent — after an initial evaluation, I was able to schedule a consistent appointment with an understanding clinician. While the institution has been subject to an overwhelming amount of criticism, the system worked perfectly well for me: I received the treatment I needed in a timely manner.

Yet after a month of weekly appointments at 55 Lock St., I didn’t think I needed to speak to a psychiatrist anymore. To see somebody for mental health reasons felt unnecessary and shameful, particularly at Yale.

What made up my mind was a conversation with a close friend. When we came to the subject of Yale Mental Health & Counseling — divorced from my experiences — he suggested that people who went to a psychiatrist were either exaggerating their issues or weren’t strong enough to handle University life.

I agreed. Seeing somebody at Yale Health was a sign of weakness — and really, I was OK. I missed my next appointment and didn’t respond to the repeated calls from my psychiatrist or the personalized letter he sent to my mailbox.

When my little brother passed away this summer, amidst all the shock and grief and heartache, my mom asked whether I was sure I wanted to come back to New Haven right away. Of course I did, I thought, I’m OK enough to head back to school.

T
hat was the wrong move. As the days grew shorter and the friends who were my support system gradually drifted back to their own lives, I was left to fend for myself.

As I tried to hold all the pieces of myself together, as I insisted to myself that I was OK, small signs to the contrary trickled out: spontaneously breaking into tears as I walked back to my apartment, sitting through entire classes without hearing a word. November fell into December, December fell into January, and it only became more and more difficult to pull myself out of bed every morning.

By the time February rolled around, I finally decided to head back to Yale Health. I called the number on the letter my psychiatrist had sent me — perhaps I kept it thinking that I might have needed it later on — and set up another appointment.

There, my counselor helped me see just how far I had fallen, and how grief had affected parts of my life. It had hurt my ability to relate to others, my motivation and even my sleep schedule in ways I hadn’t realized.

I felt like I was able to breathe again when I left his office, and I hadn’t even known I’d been suffocating. I’d been trying so hard to hold all the pieces together, when really what I needed was to let it all fall apart before trying to make myself whole again. I was not, in fact, OK — and that was OK.

My ongoing struggle has not been with a specific University policy or institution, but with the attitudes toward mental health among the student body. More than just providing additional or higher-quality services to those suffering from mental health issues, administrators and students need to work to change the discussion entirely.

Campus discourse about mental health is still characterized by a certain amount of stigma, as even the best-intentioned friends can treat going to a counselor as something to be ashamed of. Better mental health education, more open discussion and the simple recognition that mental disorders are widespread (over a quarter of the U.S. adult population has suffered a mental disorder in the past year, according to the National Institute for Mental Health) could be a big step in the right direction.

Ultimately, we need to turn the tables on labeling the acknowledgement of mental health disorders as a sign of weakness. To do so is instead an incredible show of strength. To allow the pieces of our lives to fall apart, to loudly proclaim, “I’m not OK,” is a true act of courage.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

I felt like I was able to breathe again when I left his office, and I hadn’t even known I’d been suffocating.

Comments



© Copyright 2014 Yale Daily News. All rights reserved.