Dear Alma Mater

This week’s post is a departure from the stuff I usually post. While I didn’t tell anyone this when I got my friends to vote on blog titles for me what brought about “Her Story Continued” was the fact that there was a day when my story almost didn’t. I’ve talked about my battle with mental health before but today I’d like to go into a little more depth with a bit of a passion piece that I wrote to my university about what happened to me. Unfortunately, like too many university and college students I feel that Brock’s mental health system failed me.

I take this time every year to reflect on what happened six years ago. Even after all this time it’s something I’m not bound to forget.

Trigger warning: for suicide and self-harm.

Dear Alma Mater,

I am not here to lash out about the lack of opportunities my degree created for me or the tens of thousands of dollars I handed over to you for an education that I unfortunately hardly recall. That conversation could be saved for another letter. Instead, I am here to talk about something that happened within your halls in my freshman year. I am here to talk about the night in that prisoner’s cell you call a dorm room where a broken girl contemplated how freeing it might be not to exist anymore.

By being able to write this piece I have to admit that I am one of the lucky ones. I was not in so deep that I couldn’t pull myself out. I spent hours contemplating if it was worth the time. If I was worth that effort. In the end I scrambled for help, I went desperately to my dorm mate and then to our RA. That was a lot to put on a fellow student who was only a year ahead of me and happened to be the same age but she had a procedure to follow. Soon enough I stood in her room, crowded by other representatives of the university, students just like me. It was all such a blur I had forgotten who was even there until years later when I recalled the night again with one of the reps who had become a friend.

As if the slew of other students filling the room was not enough to draw the attention of every passerby in the hall, the paramedics brought up a stretcher in case I needed to be wheeled out of the building. It was unnecessary but I do not fault them for that, they were just doing their jobs. IIt is the sad truth that some of them may have reported to much worse in those university halls. In the end, I walked down to the ambulance with them. Alma Mater I was getting settled inside, scared as hell because I’d never been in an ambulance before, when I was stopped by one of your dorm representatives.

“You have to call your parents.” she said.

She was just following procedure, I cannot fault her. I blame the procedure which was faulty and illegal. I was eighteen, a legal adult, I didn’t actually have to call anyone. I asked to do so later when I had calmed down but she pressed.

“If you don’t, we have to.”

No, Alma Mater, it turns out you didn’t have to. I didn’t know my rights, I didn’t know up from down in that moment so I made the call from the back of the ambulance as we headed to the hospital. I didn’t think I had a choice. Alma Mater, your rules made me make that call before I was ready, before I had the words to assure my parents it was okay. I could hardly breathe as my mother picked up the phone, answering a call I know she had been so afraid she’d one day get. To this day, it’s the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make.

I will say this, Alma Mater, what happened at the hospital is not on you, it’s a story for another time and complaint for another system. I know not to blame you for that one. I spent a horrid night there in a room alone when in reality all I needed was to be with someone who could keep me from doing the unthinkable. All I needed was to not be alone with my own thoughts. I know that now, I did not know that then.

The following morning when I was discharged from the psychiatric ward I returned to school. I attended my morning classes before I headed back to my dorm and received notice of what was next. I had a mandatory meeting with one of the school representatives and I was given the information on how to sign up for counselling through the school. I was apprehensive because it had taken me a long time to adjust to the counsellor I had at home but in order to ease my parents’ minds I agreed to give it a try.

We’ll start with the meeting with the representative, since this is where the bitter taste in my mouth truly began. What I was expecting was support, some sort of encouragement and aid that would help me use the resources I was supposed to have at my fingertips. I expected to be connected with others who could help me, who could take this horrible moment in my life and make it a turning point. Unfortunately, I had to do that part myself.

Instead, what you gave me was a contract. A piece of paper to cover your ass legally and to try and encourage me not to do anything too drastic. I understand from my work now that there is theory behind this that having the contract on my conscience would help encourage me to not take my own life later on but it certainly didn’t feel like that from how it was presented. There was nothing to back it up, there was just a piece of paper. I signed that piece paper saying I wouldn’t hurt myself in the future, that I wouldn’t kill myself. That’s all the meeting was. No one asked to see how I was coping, no one checked in to see if I had contacted the counsellors, no one asked me anything except to scribble my name across that piece of paper, as if that would change everything for me. It’s policy, I know. But if that’s all you’re going to put into action then it’s a stupid God damn policy.

To make matters worse when I did seek out counselling from the school on my own behalf I waited over three weeks for any sort of help. I realize it’s a backed up system because almost everyone in those halls needs some sort of help, even if most aren’t receiving it. Still, you would think there would be some urgency in this situation, someone that might recognize what had happened and realize that even one debriefing might’ve helped me through that waiting period. I understand that I had to wait my turn like everyone else, but even the smallest of check ins from someone, anyone while I was waiting might’ve helped. By the time I saw a counsellor I was about to head into exams and my mind was too focused on that to even begin to process that night properly. Unfortunately, Alma Mater, this is not where you finished failing me.

I attended one session with a counsellor and then booked another. They moved the counselling location to the basement of our dorm building which was slightly more convenient but much less private. The new office was three doors down from the communal laundry facility and the waiting area for therapy was outside in the hall. My floor had been told I had an allergic reaction and that’s why I went away in an ambulance so they didn’t know the whole story. But to this day, Alma Mater, I can’t remember if that was my lie or yours. Either way, I wasn’t pleased to be sitting out in the open, waiting for my therapist. Of course, that isn’t even the worst part. The time of the appointment came and no one came out of the office to greet me, I waited ten minutes and knocked on the door. Nothing. I waited another five and called the department to see what was going on.

“Sorry, we cancelled your appointment.”

No explanation, no warning, and certainly no courtesy. Your staff offered to put me in with another counsellor later in the day. I’d been told there would be consistency so I could build rapport once again and be comfortable, instead you tried to bounce me around. I declined, and discouraged by the experience I never called and scheduled another appointment in the four and a half years I spent in your halls. Worst of it all, you had your signed contract so you never checked to see if I was getting help. You’d washed your hands of me.

I must say, there is usually comfort in finding out that you’re not alone, but in this instance it sort of makes me sick. In the years since this all happened I have found out that my story is not a unique one, not to you or to any other post-secondary establishment. It is one that echoes through dorm halls all over the country. University and college students are not being supported, despite the fact that they are under unthinkable stress in all realms of their lives. Students away from home, away from loved ones, in a new strange place, perhaps without any friends or connections to speak of. Students drowning in assignments and study notes while trying to work part-time jobs to pay for their expensive degrees. Students hanging on by a thread, spending nights crying in rooms akin to prison cells and days sleepwalking through campus halls. They’re crying out for help and they’re not getting it.

In the six years that have past since that night in the hospital I have learnt that I wasn’t the only individual on my dorm floor to go through the same experience, I wasn’t the only individual in my group of friends to go through this experience, and you, Alma Mater, are not the only school who has so miserably failed the brilliant and wonderful students that call you home. Many are not as lucky as me. I found support outside of you and I pulled through. But there are those so isolated, so far down in that hateful space in their mind that they don’t get out. They break the contract you forced them to sign.

Alma Mater, I know you are not the only one at fault here. I know this is part of a bigger problem that exists amongst academia where students are too often treated as numbers and grades are more important than mental health. But I’m writing to you because you are the one that failed me. And while I escaped those halls with my degree, my sanity, and my life, I can’t help but look back and think of the young men and women who might not make it out. Please, Alma Mater, I’m begging you. Don’t fail them too.

Lastly, to every student who is going through anything like what I went through, I implore you to get the help you need. I know this letter serves as a cautionary tale but the last thing I would want is for someone to shy away from getting help because of my story. If your school cannot help you, cast your gaze elsewhere, the help is out there, I promise. And in six years or ten years or however many go by, I promise you, you’ll look back and be happy your story continued.

If you need help, consider reaching out to the following agencies:

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
LGBT Youthline 1-800-268-9688
Victim Services Toronto: 416-808-7066
Victim Services of York Region: 905-953-5363
Victim Services Barrie: 705.725.7025 ext. 212
Victim Services Durham: 905 579 1520 ext. 3400
Distress Centre of Toronto: 416-408-4357
Non-Emergency Line (Toronto): 416-808-2222
Police: 911

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