By Joanne Nguyen
This is not a funny article. Pack up your clown nose and comically large shoes, because if you’re looking for tom-foolery, you won’t find it here. What I’m about to disclose to you is no laughing matter, but once you are intimately familiar with the inner workings of Binghamton University’s “mental health services,” everything can get morbidly funny very quickly.
As I’m sure you know, at the beginning of each semester your teacher will most likely assure you that, have you any brain problems, there are “resources in your syllabus” that can help you. These include things like the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), the Care Team, Harpur Advising, and, the focus of this article, the University Counseling Center (UCC). When I hear a professor reference these “resources,” I actually cannot stop myself from throwing my head back and laughing hysterically. “BAAAHAHAHA,” I bellow, like a Tom Hanks character. The truth is, these “resources” are put in place just for show. Just for professors to mindlessly gesture to when a “mentally ill” approaches them on the hour of their office. When everything gets down to the nitty-gritty, this university is not willing to help the seriously mentally ill or really anything beyond the distressed student who can’t emotionally handle the 85 they got on their stats test.
I’ve struggled my whole college career with undisclosed disorders that, at times, impact me in personal ways. Yes, I am being vague on purpose. I don’t even know you! Freshman year, things were getting weird, and I couldn’t help but fantasize about shuffling off this mortal coil. It was then my rosy-cheeked, baby-faced, bouncing, bubble-butt decided to saunter over to the Counseling Center to try and figure out why exactly I was stupid. Two months later, I had my first regular therapist. I never really knew that bad therapy could harm you, but that was something I learned quite quickly.
I have often been astounded at the advice given to depressives. “Hey, I know you’re struggling to function, but you really HAVE to set a solid sleep schedule, meditate, socialize, never partake in psychoactive substances, eat nutritious homemade food, exercise every day, work, plan your whole day, journal, and really engage in those hobbies you derive no joy from anymore!” WHAT? You would NEVER expect even a neurotypical college student to do all that shit. “Well, if you don’t at least try, then you might not get better. :/” Well, I would go to any length to get better—something that (foreshadowing!) would bite me in the ass later. So I actually DID all that aforementioned shit. And it didn’t get better; it got worse. Turns out pushing yourself to exhaustion every day might have negative consequences on your health. I had overarching problems that weren’t going to be solved with exercise; problems that the counselors at the university seemed entirely unequipped to help me through. So, in the throes of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I was passed off to the psychiatry department.
My experience with Binghamton University’s psychiatry center was brief and painful. I waited 2 weeks for an intake appointment where I spent the majority of time filling out paperwork and the rest being judgmentally asked if I was sure I didn’t take “special classes” in high school. I don’t have much else to say besides that I felt judged, and my memories of her shocked glances and condescending tone haunt me a little bit. I don’t like being treated like a child, and much less a child with something inherently monstrously wrong with them. By the end of the 1,000 year session, I was given a diagnosis, along with a disclaimer that they couldn’t do anything to help me since, back then when COVID hit for the first time, they wouldn’t be able to monitor me in person.
In my intense frustration and helplessness, when I went home to quarantine I spent the next two months trying to find therapy at home, a process that was much tougher than I ever expected. Coming back to campus (COVID-edition), I joined one of the UCC’s therapy groups, “Calming the Emotional Storm.” After waiting a couple of months for it to begin, I quickly found that it wasn’t for me. The soft-spoken, meditative, “never talk negatively about yourself” therapeutic approach didn’t align with the down-to-earth, chad-arc mission I was put on this planet to accomplish. I fully understand that being handled with kiddie gloves might appeal to some, but toxic positivity just makes me feel like I’m not being taken seriously.
After my off-campus therapist suddenly got fired, I was again thrown into the fray of finding therapy; but this time with the added pressure from my psychiatrist that, in order for her to keep seeing me, I needed to be continuously psychoanalyzed. So, I went back to the UCC with the same zeal as a malleable girl going back to her abusive ex. “Sure, he hurts me, but he’s all I have!” But I was pleasantly surprised. For the rest of the semester, I had a great experience with a therapist who took me seriously and was empathetic to my situation without treating me like a child. Sadly, I learned I couldn’t keep seeing her since she was transferring to a better job by the end of the semester.
I went back again this past fall semester. Again, as the red cape is pulled from the bull, the temptation of a good therapeutic experience kept me charging toward the UCC, only for it to be pulled away at the last second. My new counselor seemed to want to talk at me and gesture vaguely at disorders rather than actually help me with my problems. I started dreading the sessions. When things started getting bad, I made a huge mistake, and one session a silver tear ran down my face and glimmered in a sun-ray before falling limply into my lap. The counselor seemed overwhelmed, to say the least: asking if I wanted to leave, telling me every location of a water fountain on campus, and lastly, saying it was OK for me to have a tantrum. Excuse me, what? A tantrum? I would really think a Center of University Counselors would be more prepared to handle more than a couple tears spurting out my eyeballs. It was then I left and vowed never to go back to the UCC again.
That was until my psychiatrist told me I needed to find a new therapist immediately.
Out of the frying pan and into another frying pan, I, in my infinite stupidity, went back to the Counseling Center this semester in a fit of desperation. How could I not? After meeting with supervisors both on and off of campus they all had one recommendation in common, just go to the counseling center! All roads led back to the same place. I neither had the time nor, let’s face it, the mental fortitude to go hunting off campus for that sweet, sweet brain guidance. But when I got there for my appointment, I felt ambushed.
What I was told was a counseling appointment was secretly, unbeknownst to me, a meeting with a coordinator. What I was told freshman year, that I was entitled to 10 sessions a year, was actually false, as she informed me. The brief therapy model at the university entitles you to 10 sessions per problem, actually, and someone like me, who continually dealt with the same “problem,” was not welcome back since there seemed to be no solution. I wish I knew this at the beginning so that I could’ve had time to prepare… maybe so I could’ve been looking for someone off-campus months ago. Firstly, why not tell me this information at the beginning? Secondly, why act like my mental illness is a problem I can’t seem to solve rather than something to continuously work on? And thirdly, why was I informed of this like it was my fault? Like I should’ve been “fixed” already and purposely tried to go over the session limit I didn’t know existed?
The answer is clear. The University Counseling Center is not for people who are actually sick. It is not for people who need ongoing therapy. And it is NOT prepared to handle problems that won’t be magically fixed with “box breathing.” I wasn’t told about the 10 session limit as a freshman, nor could I get the truth about it when I asked because the university wants to put forward a front of “mental health support,” without following through. They want prospective students and freshmen to feel like if they have a problem there is a web of resources available to help them fully. This could not be further from the truth.
I have been trying to register with the services for students with disabilities for 5 weeks now. When I called them 2 weeks ago, they said they had received my forms a week prior and would get back to me in a few days. After not responding to my follow-up emails, when I called yesterday they immediately said they had received my forms a week prior and would get back to me in a few days. Wait. Where had I heard this before? After I said “What? You said that to me two weeks ago,” they actually put me through to talk to somebody. Ridiculous. Is it this difficult on purpose to discourage students from actually registering?
In a phenomenon my roommate lovingly dubbed “Big UCC,” we reminisced about how every mental health resource eventually directs you to the UCC, which I was now effectively banned from. In the climax of my story, a couple of weeks ago I was coerced into taking new meds. Like I said earlier, I was prepared to do almost anything that could give me a shot at getting better. I had searched for days for a new therapist near me, but they were scarce and no one had gotten back to me yet. Things were not looking good. Without the help of the SSD, I couldn’t get notes from my classes and had to meekly explain to my professor that I needed help because the room was spinning. At times I couldn’t manage to feed myself or have the physical strength to get up. I called Binghamton University’s lesser-known Psychological Clinic, as was referred to me by a coordinator. They told me they had a waitlist of a couple months (which really means never), and recommended that I should try going to the University Counseling Center. I guffawed. My eyes popped out of my head and deflated like sad balloons.
Later in the dark night, I was still having terrible physical and emotional side effects, and everything was drowning in them. I couldn’t get a grip and, in my hour of need, called the crisis hotline. Big mistake. “You’ve reached the University Counseling Center…” WHAT?? THE COUNSELING CENTER?? GODDAMMIT HARVEY. May it rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and may this devastating university flood, and only I, in my comically large ark, survive.
The moral of the story is this: The UCC sucks, has given me terrible therapy, and has, through its own dereliction of duty to tell the full truth, set me back on my mission to become the strongest human. I regret every interaction I’ve had with them, except for that one counselor who I thought did a really good job. But she’s gone now. Probably rescued from that horrible place because she refused to partake in their blood rituals. The university needs a proper, comprehensive mental health initiative with well-trained individuals to either provide long-term therapy to its students or be honest about the limitations of the program. If only we had sixty million dollars lying around…