The Treatment of Mental Health at BHSEC

Theo S.M. Rodas, ‘19

In a previous Bardvark issue, Camilla Bianchi (Y2) wrote a stunning article on stress culture at Bard, something that myself and other students have discussed at length. And it’s a conversation that always feeds into a larger one. Why are so many students in such bad places mental health wise, and why hasn’t it been addressed at all? Don’t get me wrong, we’re perfectly open to discussions of mental health, and often we find friends we can trust and lean on when we need support, but in public spaces, or even with the administrative and guidance faculty employed to help us with these problems, we cannot bring ourselves to bring up the widespread issue of mental illness and psychiatric disability at Bard. In fact, we rarely even promote mental health, instead opting to swap stories about how little sleep we get or how we skip lunch to study.

Camilla’s article spoke to this narrative, of students competing in how much they can give up to prove they’re working hard enough. The answer is pretty clear: way, way too much. She also mentioned that the conflation of stress and anxiety leads to the erasure of psychiatric disability in discussions and leads students to de-value their own experiences. Because we feel such a need to be stressed out, sleepless and over-caffeinated, we tend to absorb genuine anxiety and depression into the category of things that will get better just as soon as we’re done with this next exam. We tend to reject entirely the possibility of mental illness outside of the odd case of high functioning anxiety and depression.

Bard has more than the average number of students grappling with psychiatric disabilities, some of whom are able to keep up with their homework and studying and extracurriculars, who have access to mental health resources outside of school, but there are many more who often feel as though we’re struggling to keep our heads above the water. There are few things like the shame you feel trying to explain that you just can’t get out of bed some days, that you can’t do your homework, or make it to the next after school event, only to be met with the response that this feeling is only coming from too little sleep, not enough exercise, or even your own insufficient time management practices. Few things like the feeling of being forced back to class while you’re hyperventilating and struggling to keep the tears from running down your cheeks because obviously going to chemistry is more important than whatever’s actually wrong because the school has a policy that tells guidance counselors that if we’re missing a “core class,” we can’t be in their offices. When we don’t get the proper help, when our guidance staff tells us we’re the problem, when the teachers don’t bat an eye at students saying they wish they were dead, it builds up. Kids fail classes because they have no tools to deal with the mental exhaustion, we break down, and we turn to our friends who are often also overburdened and struggling, and more importantly, aren’t mental health professionals who can help us approach this issue within the school’s bureaucracy. To put it simply, we feel like the school doesn’t care about us.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, many of the students don’t even try to explain their problems to the staff, or even to their friends. The guidance staff is almost exclusively white, straight women, no amount of “allyship” will equal understanding, and many students wouldn’t feel comfortable or even safe turning to people they have no point of relation to. The lack of queer people or people of color employed in mental health support at Bard is just one of dozens of ways that Bard leaves queer students and students of color at a greater disadvantage.

What about the students grappling with psychiatric disabilities more serious or less socially acceptable than generalized anxiety or depression? The students who don’t even feel comfortable opening up to each other, afraid of rejection or ignorance? This school is only comfortable with the pretty versions of mental illness, the high functioning and manageable, it doesn’t want those of us who can’t suffocate our struggles until they’re all but invisible. Bard doesn’t want to see panic, mania, self-harm, suicidal ideation or trauma, even when other students are doing the traumatizing. Not only is the staff not serving students grappling with many psychiatric disabilities, but the students often don’t want to hear about Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, PTSD or the plethora of other psychiatric disabilities deemed “too scary” for social comment.

It doesn’t go away if you ignore it, we don’t disappear if you pretend that we’re not here. It just gets worse. Having serious problems treated like mood swings and nerves leaves a lasting impact, even internalizing the stress culture rhetoric influences the way we’ll treat our bodies and minds as we go off to college and careers. The way Bard addresses mental health leaves us unable to ask for help, determined that serious issues aren’t real problems, ashamed of our emotions and mental health problems, and mistrusting of professionals. Most of us will undo the damage eventually, learn how to live healthy lives coping with stress and sadness and psychiatric disabilities if applicable, but I worry about what will happen inside this school if it continues down this track. I don’t want to stumble upon a news article about BHSEC a couple years down the line detailing a student suicide.

Is it worth it? The 60 college credits, the SAT scores? Because we tell ourselves we’re giving up our free time, healthy sleeping and eating habits, but in reality, many of us are running ourselves into the ground. We’re repeatedly telling ourselves that if we’re not pushing ourselves to our physical and mental limits for our work, we’re not doing enough. For many of us, it won’t just take a summer or a year at college to go back to being “normal,” for many of us it will leave lasting mental impacts that we won’t be able to undo for years. For the administration and guidance staff, is it worth it to see students at the end of their rope every day, sincerely struggling to keep going so that you can keep excusing it as teen angst and procrastination?

To close out this article, a message to all of you reading this, if you are struggling with anything, you are not alone. You are worthy and loved and your problems deserve attention whatever they may be, and someday it will get better.

Some free or low-cost mental health services in NYC:

  • NYC Well, offers mental health support online and through text and call.

  • Callen-Lorde Center Health Outreach To Teens(HOTT), offers mental health services for queer youth at 18th street location.

  • Mount Sinai Adolescent Center, offers mental health services for all youth at 94th street location