Ihionu: All in Your Head

by Amarachi Ihionu | 10/8/15 9:10pm

It is 7:45 on an overcast Monday morning. I know this only because my alarm is blaring, reminding me that I have the misfortune of having to once again wake up and drag myself out of bed — though it only seems unfortunate if your thought processes, like mine, are dominated by mental illnesses, namely depression and generalized anxiety disorder. What is fortunate, however, is that I received both diagnoses before coming to the College. Despite this, I was still unprepared for the amount of effort it would take to get out of bed some days. Maintaining focus while being engaged in academic work is a bit like trying to grasp a wet bar of soap. I could lock myself in the sixth level stacks — no human contact, no phone, no internet — and still manage to waste hours being unproductive — and I definitely did not expect the Hanover winters to take my depressive episodes to new lows.

Admittedly, the most interesting part of my mental illnesses is how well they complement each other. Depression drains my motivation to do my assignments and other tasks while anxiety makes sure that I’m constantly thinking about everything I am failing to do and how it will eventually jeopardize my post-graduate opportunities. Both also sabotage my social life and relationships. Having major social anxiety means planning my meal times to avoid crowds and panicking internally when walking alone between classes. On the brighter side, my mental illnesses also mean embracing my studio art minor because it means locking myself away from people and listening to my favorite music as I paint for hours on end.

Existing with mental illnesses at Dartmouth is hard. Existing as a queer, black woman at Dartmouth College is even harder. To this day, even as a junior, I still cannot shake doubts about whether I belong at this predominantly white Ivy League institution. Moreover, as a self-identified asexual aromantic, I am almost always thinking about how compulsory sexuality and amatonormativity — or the false idea that everyone experiences romantic attraction — constantly demean and deny my existence. This combined with my mental illnesses mean that I am no stranger to the process of seeking resources, including talk therapy and medication.

I am lucky to have had decent experiences with Counseling and Human Development at Dick’s House — but, unfortunately, I know many who have not. Truthfully, I do believe that 10 sessions per academic year with a CHD counselor makes sense only in the context of short-term crisis management. Otherwise, it is absurd. Of course, limited staff members can only do so much to accommodate the potential mental health needs of over 6,000 students, which is why students who need long-term therapy are referred to providers in the community.

Though this seems all well and good, most providers in the Hanover area either do not take insurance or take only specific insurance plans that I do not have. Another issue that arises for students who have to seek resources outside of the College is proximity. If you have access to a car, then you also have access to an expanded range of providers in the surrounding area beyond Hanover. If not, then you are confined to those within walking distance. Even if you can use public transportation, Advance Transit has limited routes, limited hours and does not operate on weekends.

Additionally, within the reduced pool of providers from which to choose, you are less likely to find someone with whom you feel comfortable. As I know from personal experience, the therapist-client dynamic is incredibly important and determines how effective therapy will be. What happens if I cannot find someone who will validate my identity and the way it interacts with my lived experiences and mental illnesses?

With the College’s recent emphasis on promoting student wellness, I would certainly hope they are doing more than lip service to an issue that affects so many undergraduates. Rather than focusing on academic rigor — as if students are not already dedicating the majority of their time, effort and motivation toward their academic pursuits — perhaps College President Phil Hanlon and other senior administrators should consider the intersections of mental health and academics and how the College can be more accommodating for students with chronic mental health issues.

Mental health is not just a personal issue — it is a campus issue, and Dartmouth needs to do a better job of addressing it.