Life as a freshman far from home, in a new environment, doing something I’ve never done before, is difficult and scary, but navigating that while in the middle of a full-blown relapse seemed impossible. This was my reality though: I’ve struggled with mental illness for at least 5 years.
When I arrived on campus, I thought I was someplace where I could be real, where I could be open and honest with people without fear of judgment. However, this isn’t what I experienced. I was so hurt to hear students all over campus making light of mental illnesses, saying things like, “People with eating disorders just need to learn how to eat,” or, “People who are depressed just need to get up and do something.” These are incredibly ignorant comments that make people keep their struggles to themselves. This is the truth: eating disorders go much deeper than issues with food and body image. It’s a disease, just like cancer or diabetes. No one chooses to despise herself so much that reaches a breaking point: the only things she can think to do are starve herself, purge, take pills, or binge--all for the sake of trying to “fix” herself. Self-harm is not attention seeking. If we wanted attention, we would be showing everyone instead of going to great lengths to hide everything. Sometimes people face such pain, and they believe the only way to release the pain is to hurt him/herself. Suicidal people don’t really want to die; they just want the pain to end. They’ve lost all hope that life will ever get better. People who are depressed have chemical imbalances. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have dealt with extreme trauma.
All of these people that I have mentioned are me. If you don’t take anything else away from my story, remember this: anyone struggling with one or more of these issues is a human being who God loves, just as much as He loves you. Treat us appropriately with this truth in mind. What if I judged or made fun of someone who was bald from radiation treatments because he/she has cancer? You would think I’m a horrible person. Mental illnesses should be viewed through the same lens. Those who suffer from mental illness(es) cannot help it. Trust me. I would turn it all off right now if I could, but I don’t have that power. God gives everyone their cross to bear, and mental illness happens to be mine. Here’s my story.
During this semester, I experienced a close call with suicide. I expressed severe suicidal feelings to a few close friends, who took them seriously and contacted Student Life. I had to meet with a couple of people from Student Life; the meeting took place in my dorm. Although I was nervous and upset, the tone of conversation was anything but serious or considerate of my emotional state. Throughout the conversation, the student life employees were smiling, bubbly, and cheerful, and the subject deviated frequently from the task at hand. They then proceeded to take a vote on whether or not to send me to the hospital. I was sitting in the room; they spoke as if I wasn’t a few feet away from them. Ignoring my emotional fragility, they cracked several jokes, as if they hadn’t just voted about where I would be staying for the next week. But the decision had been made: I was going to the hospital.
While I was in the hospital, a dean contacted the friends to whom I had expressed my feelings. The dean encouraged them to stop supporting me as much, saying that they didn’t need to “take ownership” of my treatment. The dean asked my friends to have me call because they didn’t know where I had been hospitalized. As per the dean’s request, I called several days later, and the dean asked me to email about setting up a time for us to meet.
We scheduled a time to meet on the day after I was discharged from the hospital. At first, the dean seemed to be genuinely concerned and caring, assuring me that they were there for me whenever I needed anything. I let my guard down a little. Then, the dean reached over to the printer, pulled a paper out, and placed it in front of me. The paper laid out 4 “directives” I had to comply with in order to remain living on campus. Three of the directives weren’t an issue at all, but the first was. It read: “Thoughts, feelings and expressions of self-harm are to be communicated only to a counselor, RA, RD, dean, family, or to emergency personnel (i.e. 911) if your life is in danger.”
I was threatened that if I talked about my mental health with my friends, I would be kicked out of my dorm. I felt like I had no choice in signing it. By legal definition, that is coercion. I asked the dean if I could at least get my friends added to the list, and we discussed the issue for a while before the dean finally said they would investigate the possibility. The dean met with one of my friends a week later and finally added them to the list.
I found Cedarville’s course of action during these events to be appalling. If I had broken my leg, would I only be allowed to talk to certain people about the pain associated with that? By drawing a line like this, Cedarville is increasing the stigma surrounding mental illness, making me feel more isolated than before. Discrimination in this form is dehumanizing and leads to a belief that the people who belong to the discriminated group don’t have value.
Cedarville made its message clear: You are different than everybody else, worth less than everybody else, and not wanted on this campus. Maybe this isn’t what they said, or what they meant, but this is what their actions said to me. I’ve cried over this: I watched the place I had grown to love turn against me out of ignorance and hate, and this pain tore me apart. When I needed love and support the most, part of this community of Christ-followers responded to me with hate and judgment.
I know there are others like me on this campus having to deal with similar issues. That is my purpose in sharing my story. I don’t want anyone else to have to go the pain and judgment I encountered. Hopefully, something I’ve said here will cause people to change. Hopefully, people will think before they speak. Hopefully, people in leadership will find love in their hearts and show it through their actions toward and interactions with others.
My plea to you is simple: learn from my experiences and stand up for others. Please learn to be kind to those around you. Don’t make jokes or ignorant comments about sensitive issues out of a lack of experience or understanding. That’s the very thing that keeps people locked up and hidden, telling no one of their struggles. Make this world a safe place for those around you, where people can be real and get the help they need and deserve. Stop adding to the hate, the judgment, the dehumanization and take a stand for those who are too scared to take a stand for themselves. To anyone struggling with mental illness: you are not alone. You are valued. You are beautiful. You have worth. You are loved. Stay strong.