Emerson made me fight for the mental health care I needed. But I shouldn’t have had to


Christine Park

As a student with a history of suicidal thoughts, I posed a liability to the school. But when these issues arise, the college should handle them with more flexibility and compassion.

By Cat Bixler

*Content Warning: This article heavily references suicide and depression. 

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. From my experience, however, it is usually treated as something else altogether.

Earlier this September, I felt suicidal and texted one of my friends about it. Worried about me, he called the police, and I was taken to the hospital, where they decided I should stay at a mental health facility for a few days. While my treatment team initially suggested I attend a six-hour outpatient program for two weeks following my discharge, I decided I would try to find another plan, largely because of the strain the program would put on me combined with a rigorous academic schedule. My treatment team and I finalized a discharge plan that included seeing a Massachusetts-based therapist once a week. After five days in the in-patient facility, I was discharged and returned back to my campus dorm room, a place I view as my home.

When students are discharged from in-patient care, Emerson is required to formulate a reentry plan for them. Later that day, I received a call from a college representative notifying me of the college’s decision: either I participate in the two-week outpatient program, which would also stop me from participating in my courses normally, or I would be sent on mandatory health leave. 

The former was not an option. If I regularly attended my difficult courses, a six hour-per-day program, and my job, I would be emotionally and psychologically wrecked at the end of each day. But if the alternative meant I would be forced out of the college, I would be on my own to figure out a plan for housing during that time.

Most importantly, the college’s options also meant my post-hospitalization plan would no longer apply. If I went back home to Pennsylvania, I would not be able to see the therapist in Massachusetts I was scheduled to see. Instead, I would have to join the waiting list for a therapist in my hometown, where it was likely I would wait more than a month just to get an appointment. Rather than receiving immediate help like I had planned, going home meant I would need to wait to get in touch with a professional, regardless of whether I actually connected with and learned from that person.

Kicking a student out of college because of a medical condition they have no control over sounds absurd, and that’s because it is. Even if a student did have control over their illness, even if the student had smoked for years and gotten lung cancer, dictating how an individual receives help in any situation is not acceptable.

And issues that involve mental health are even trickier. I know because it happened to me. The student cannot fight the school’s decision. Any attempt to to fight the school’s decision will result in the student being suspended, losing any chance of having their tuition reimbursed.

I was faced with these two choices as soon as I left the hospital. I had been aware of the dilemma beforehand, but only because a college representative had called my mother—without notifying me—to tell her about my options several days earlier. When I expressed my discomfort that my mother was alerted before I was, and without my consent, I was told it had been deemed necessary. I told the representative I was uncomfortable with this kind of contact with my family. Immediately following that conversation, however, the college employee contacted her again.

The school emailed me an outline on Sept. 10 that explained how “there have been at least four incidents where you have threatened or attempted serious self-harm, and/or sent threats to kill yourself to other members of the Emerson community.” One of these incidents referenced an occasion in March where I had planned to commit suicide and sent a note to my friends, many of whom were Emerson students. The letter frames my note as a threat, but in reality, it was a plan. I had wanted to tell my friends I loved them before I died.

The letter’s next sentence explains: “These incidents have been deeply disruptive to other students and members of our community.” Once again, the college frames the issue as me carelessly playing with other student’s feelings.

Notably, two of the four times listed (including the previously detailed incidents), I went through the proper channels the school outlines in its policies and contacted resident assistants and directors as they suggest. This is a channel of help that the school promotes, yet my history of using this channel was used against me and framed as a threat.

Luckily this story has a happy ending—sort of. After I got an Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services (ECAPS) member to talk to an Emerson representative on my behalf and threatened to sue, the college eventually changed their mind. They sent along an updated agreement for my care in which the two-week program was no longer required. I only needed to meet with the therapist I was scheduled to see in my original discharge plan and establish a long-term treatment plan.

Of course, there are strings attached. I am still liable to be suspended without compensation for a variety of offenses, including forgetting to take my medication, missing a therapy appointment, or bringing up self-harm or suicidal thoughts to other students. But it’s better than the alternative, right?

Still, I should not have been forced to fight with the college for my basic rights when I needed to be focused on fighting my depression. It should not take threatening legal action to be treated fairly regarding my mental health issues. I understand it’s a messy topic. As a student with a history of suicidal thoughts, I posed a liability to the school. But when these issues arise, the college should handle them with more flexibility and compassion.

Emerson needs to change how it deals with situations regarding mental health. Based on my experience, I recommend that the college take these measures following a student’s mental health hospitalization:

  • Engage the student directly in the creation of their re-entry plan while it is being created. If possible, the college should schedule sessions with a college representative, health professionals, and the student so they may all provide input and clear up misunderstandings.
  • When it is not a time-sensitive issue, students should be notified and given up to 24 hours to explain extenuating circumstances or preferences before the college contacts their parent or guardian.
  • The language used about a student’s re-entry plan should be closely examined to ensure it is not villainizing or triggering to a recently hospitalized student.
  • Re-entry plans should not use an all-or-nothing approach. Students should be offered a variety of options that allow them to make the decision that is best for their physical and mental health.
  • Students should have access to an appeal process if they disagree with the terms of their re-entry agreement without fear of being suspended without recompensation.
  • When initially contacting a student, the college should give students the option of having an ECAPS counselor sit in on the meeting to ensure that sensitivity is shown to the student.

An overhaul of these protocols is necessary to ensure that students are safe and treated fairly by the school. Mental health is health, and it should be treated as such.

Cat Bixler is a sophomore studying journalism. If you would like to respond to this thought piece in the form of a letter to the editor, email [email protected]. Letters may be edited for style and clarity.