Content Warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide.
This post was written by Mark Farley, Former Active Minds Intern and current Graduate Student at Emory University.
“The only mistake you can make is not asking for help.” – Sandeep Jauhar
When I began college, I thought it would only be four years. Society tells you four years, so naturally, I thought that was the norm. My collegiate life did not follow the idealized track.
It took me five years to graduate college and I attended three different schools.At two of the three schools, I took a medical leave of absence. My anecdotes of these two experiences are markedly different in both content and where I was mentally and psychologically as a college student battling Bipolar Disorder.
6 years ago I entered college, having only begun treatment a few months before. For the sake of privacy, I will not name them outright.
As a first-year, you want to make friends, join student organizations, and become a part of the community. I tried my best to accomplish it all, but my disorder greatly hindered me. As the semester wore on, my self-care began to wane. Attending class became an afterthought. Somehow, I escaped the first semester. But upon returning to school, my disorder ran my life. Dates and meals were a blur.
One night, I called my dad and uttered a phrase I had never uttered before: I need help.
I felt vulnerable and scared. No one ever wants to admit that they cannot control their own faculties let alone struggle day-to-day. My dad asked about the University’s available options. I told him I did not know. I had been to the counseling center, but my therapist never said anything despite my rapid decline. After perusing every major document, I found my option on the last page of the student handbook: medical leave of absence.
After the Dean of Student granted my request, I packed my bags in the dark of the night, said goodbye to no one, and left in a stupor of embarrassment.
Months after leaving, I missed it all: the classes, the weather, the professors. Eventually though I had to choose whether I would request reinstatement or move on. On the surface I wanted to return. I loved the school and how the academics challenged me. But, I knew I would not be happy.
To this day, I have never emailed the University my decision. As a consequence, whenever my family attends the University’s parents weekend to see my younger brother, my dad’s nametag states three graduation years: ’88 (his), ’19 (brother), and ’15 (mine).
Following my decision not to return, I attended my second college near my home as I continued treatment. I took classes there for a semester until my parents, my doctor, and I knew I would fare well at a school similar to my first.
In 2013, I matriculated at my alma mater. For semesters, I hid how I felt and the state of my disorder. On the outside I looked fine: I formed an Active Minds chapter and went out regularly with friends. But as anyone who suffers from depression or anxiety will tell you, that does not mean anything.
In the fall of my senior year, I was rarely practicing self-care. Nasty habits were greatly affecting my life, which culminated in my suicide attempt. The following days were a blur; discharge from the ER to a psychiatric ward, hard conversations with family and friends. Despite living off campus the ambulance had gone to the College first and then my house.
By the time I told the Director of Student Disability Services, the College knew. I requested a quasi-medical leave of absence. When she asked for how long, I said two weeks (a rather odd request). The clinic I would be entering had a 3-week comprehensive assessment unit. Since my doctor knew my diagnosis, I would be there for maintenance (about 2 weeks).
I told her I did not want to throw my senior year away, so I would do my best to juggle school and treatment. My professors worked with me and understood my plight. My parents and I flew back home and I saw my doctor the following day. By the end of the week, I had been admitted into the Menninger Clinic.
During treatment, I did my homework and planned final papers. My treatment team (2 doctors, primary nurse, social worker/therapist, psychologist) adjusted my medicine, established a sleep routine, and regular exercise patterns. The social worker at the Clinic also talked to my therapist at my College to keep her apprised of my treatment.
Everything was looking up.
By the end of the 2 weeks, it was time for my discharge and diagnostic conference with my team. Prior to the meeting, I had contacted the College and requested reinstatement. After reviewing my treatment and letter of recommendation by my doctor, the College accepted. My therapist at my College requested to be on the diagnostic conference call so she could hear the findings and plan of action. Unfortunately, one of her children fell ill so she asked the director of the counseling center to listen.
This is where things went rather awry.
My treatment team spoke for two hours about my treatment. Everyone was in agreement that I was in a completely different place. The new medication better treated my disorder. For the first time in years, I could sit still. My legs did not shake. I did not look agitated. My thoughts did not race. I felt calm. My doctor asked the director if he had any questions. The director said no, but stated that while he believes I may feel better, it would probably be best if I do not return.
The doctor clarified that I was in a safe place, and asked me to talk about my treatment. I told him about developing my new routines, and the calm I felt. To top it all off, I had worked on my classwork so I would not be behind. The director did not seem to care.
He questioned the decision of my doctors despite Menninger providing excellent care. As I sat there, my dad said, “if you were here, you would see how his legs do not shake anymore. And while he is rather frustrated, he is composed.” The director did not budge on his position.
He asked for the plan of action again. My doctor repeated it, also mentioning that I would be meeting with my on-campus therapist twice a week per the discussion held between my social worker and her. The director said, “I would prefer that Mark see a therapist off campus and not see her anymore.”
We were in shock. The argument continued, and finally, we rested. The doctor hung up the phone, looked at everyone and said, “zero communication on their end and zero trust.”
A few days letter, I returned to the College per their acceptance of my request. I met with the Disabilities Director and she asked if I ran into any problems. It was as if problems had occurred before. I told her about the phone call, and she looked appalled.
From there, I do not know what happened. Since I was the President of the Active Minds chapter at the College, I regularly dealt with the Director of the Counseling Center. Yet every time I met with him, I felt betrayed, as if my treatment was a sham in his eyes.
In the span of 5 years, I took two markedly different leaves. A medical leave of absence is one of the greatest tools a college can offer. But all too often we hear about colleges barring students or offering few resources for mental health.
At my first University, they did not have a disability coordinator. Even today, you have to email the same Dean of Students that I emailed back in 2012. Despite some of my alma mater’s faults, it is phenomenal that they have a disabilities office. What they lack, however, is communication.
Reflecting upon these memories is difficult. Prior to February 2017, I viewed these memories with disdain. I always found a way to demean myself or find failures. While I feel like I am the only one who does this, I know I am not. There are many things one may gain from my story, and hopefully these three will stick with you.
First, never be afraid to ask for help. It is scary and you become vulnerable. But, it is the first step towards wellness.
Second, practice self-compassion. When I took my leaves, I was disgusted with myself. I failed myself, my family, my professors, and friends. It took me a long time to overcome these feelings. However, a medical leave is nothing to be embarrassed about. You are choosing to take time off to focus on your health and well-being. Allow yourself that because I wish I had.
And third, give yourself space. I always want to judge myself for not going to class, not falling asleep at a reasonable hour, and leaving school for treatment. In reality, I cannot change my past, but only learn from it. There were reasons why I could not get out of bed or needed a medical leave of absence.
To be transparent, I am currently working on the latter two in therapy. It is hard work. But worth it.
Are you interested in learning more about the leave of absence policies on your campus and how they could be improved? Check out the Transform Your Campus Leave of Absence Campaign!