How the Fun Died: Mental Health and the Black Experience

By Khadijat Durojaiye

“Where fun goes to die!” 

Probably not something you want to hear in a psych ward.

 These words were spoken by a man wearing a UChicago sweater sitting across the room from me during group therapy. I later learned that he graduated from UChicago 40 years ago and, like me, majored in Physics. He made sure everyone knew that we were both Physics majors at UChicago; he’d bring it up during every group therapy session. After I had left the hospital, I thought about him a lot, and the fact that that was what he chose to say to me after learning that I was a UChicago student.  

The phrase has always made me cringe. To me, it’s representative of the culture of romanticizing suffering that exists here at UChicago: bragging about how busy you are, how little sleep you’re getting, competing with other students, and setting unrealistically high standards for yourself. To hear it from someone so much older than me made me realize that that culture has probably existed at this school for decades. All of this, along with stories like Cassidy Wilson’s and Charles Thomas’s, are proof that The University of Chicago is unwelcoming for students with mental health issues, especially if you’re Black. 

I believe the mental health services at this institution are inadequate. School administrators and Student Wellness practitioners often shift the blame onto students instead of taking accountability. There are multiple necessary policy changes that need to be made to create a positive environment for all students with mental illness.

My struggles with mental health are deeply rooted in my cultural identity and upbringing. My parents immigrated to Chicago from Lagos, Nigeria in the ’90s. With them they brought the trauma that came with growing up in post-colonial Nigeria. They both had their own personal baggage that they had not resolved by the time that they had started raising my younger brother and me. My parents were physically and emotionally abusive when I was a child. This led to me having a harder time forming positive emotional connections with others, a fear of authority figures, cognitive issues, and struggling with depression and anxiety.

Along with the abuse came the struggle to assimilate to American culture while also preserving my parents’ culture. American culture is drastically different from Yoruba culture, and a lot of that has to do with Yoruba’s emphasis on seniority. Parent-child relationships are not at all collaborative. I saw mine more as authority figures and less as people I could rely on for emotional support. They also didn’t make much of an effort to teach me or my brother their language or culture, which I believe contributed to the creation of an atmosphere that lacked love and understanding in my home environment.

Any child of African immigrants knows that mental health can be a difficult topic in our communities, and I’ve been told that my parents are particularly “African.” I was raised with a lot of pressure to perform well academically (you have three options, which all African immigrant children are familiar with: doctor, lawyer, or engineer) along with, “If you don’t listen, I’ll send you back to Nigeria.” I told my parents that I struggled with mental health before college, but they refused to accept that there was anything wrong. I did meet briefly with a (non-Nigerian) therapist in high school, but my parents would either go into the meetings with me and complain about how I wouldn’t assimilate to their culture, or ask me questions about what I discussed in the meetings (it was usually about them) when I got out of them, so I stopped eventually. 

When I got to college, I had trouble finding a community in which I felt I could be completely myself. When I first matriculated in 2018, only 8 percent of the students in my class were Black. I thought college was a place I’d be able to learn to be myself and grow in a positive environment, but instead I had to learn to tolerate racist comments from my peers and cultural isolation. Additionally, Nigerian-American and African-American cultures are very different, and I had trouble relating with African Americans because of the cultural divide; I was foreign, and they were not. Growing up, I was “too white” to be a Black person (probably because I was African) and I didn’t feel like I was accepted by African Americans, which I think a lot of Black immigrants can relate to. I did find some comfort with Asian immigrants and international students I had befriended, but every cultural group has their prejudices and I had to deal with microaggressions in these environments as well.  

The problems I faced socially were intensified by what I was experiencing in class. I’m studying astrophysics and when I was a first year, there were usually only  a handful of Black students (and very few women) in my 100+-person classes, which only worsened the social isolation. I had a lot of support from professors and grad students in the astrophysics department before I had started at UChicago, but this didn’t keep me from internalizing the feelings of not belonging I felt in lecture. I eventually stopped going. I kept telling myself I was too stupid to do the work and I was afraid that if I tried to ask for help, I’d look stupid, so I eventually stopped doing it. A lot of my worth was tied to performing well academically and I wasn’t doing nearly as well as I would have liked. To deal with the depression that came with this, I turned to substance abuse and self-isolation, which only made things worse. I continued to rely on these unhealthy coping mechanisms until the end of spring quarter 2019. I also started over-reporting hours at my lab job that quarter because I couldn’t afford to support myself due to my mom losing her job. I’d known that something was wrong for months and I finally decided to get help when I realized that my lifestyle was not sustainable, so I scheduled an appointment at Student Wellness (then called Student Counseling Services) for the end of May, after finals that quarter. 

I had a positive intake appointment experience. The person I met with was sympathetic to my needs, and she recommended a support group for people of color that I decided not to attend. Looking back, I think this support group was exactly what I needed, but at the time I thought I’d be looked down upon for attending the support group. She seemed to care a lot about what I was going through and checked in on me months after I met with her the first time. Since I told her I struggled with race, she told me she’d help me set up an appointment with a Black psychiatrist.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this psych intervention would completely change the course of my academic career. 

I first met with the psychiatrist at the end of June 2019, a month after my intake appointment. I went into it optimistically despite what I had heard from other students. Before she evaluated me, she told me she’d ask me questions from a list she had memorized and take notes while I answered them. I thought this was a little unusual, but I had never seen a psychiatrist before, so I figured that this was just how those appointments were supposed to go. I was evaluated for anxiety, depression, and ADHD, but I don’t remember being evaluated for trauma. When we got to the ADHD questionnaire, she started to insert herself into things. At that point, it seemed like she was comparing my experience to her own instead of just evaluating me for an illness. She continued to compare me to herself and her family and share unnecessary facts about her personal life. She told me that all her children were all diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety and told me that her daughter was coming to UChicago next year. She also told me that she had to repeat a year of medical school because she found out that she had ADHD. She spent a lot of the appointment tooting her own horn; she said that she thought late ADHD diagnosis was correlated with high IQ. It was like she was turning a medical diagnosis into a personality trait. I didn’t realize at the time that this was inappropriate. I was honestly just glad I had someone to relate to and was happy I wasn’t alone in my experience, but the lack of professionalism carried into every other encounter I had with the psychiatric system.

Black women generally have a harder time with misdiagnosis, so I can understand why she was so attached to the ADHD label. She seemed like she wanted to help, but did not seem to consider how being so unprofessional may have affected me. It only took 90 minutes (60-minute intake appointment, and 30-minute second appointment) for her to diagnose me with “ADHD and anxiety.” Later, when I asked her what kind of ADHD and what kind of anxiety I had, she told me it was “just ADHD and anxiety” even though I knew there were multiple types of ADHD. Over the course of the summer, she’d respond to my emails less and less frequently, which I found frustrating, but knew was common with Student Wellness psychiatrists. Because of this lack of accessibility and dismissive approach, I felt that it’d be best to find a new psychiatrist. I didn’t know I could find another one at the University at the time, and I had also heard a few Student Wellness horror stories, so I figured it’d make sense to get help outside of the College. From the recommendation from another student, I was able to see a psychiatrist at a clinic downtown. 

Though before this change, I told my psychiatrist I wanted to apply for accommodations with Student Disability Services (SDS). She told me that the school wasn’t very good at accommodating students with disabilities, yet I applied anyway with her notes. When I met with the Deputy Dean of SDS about a month after applying, she informed me that notes from a psychiatrist weren’t enough. I wasn’t familiar with the psychiatric system, and I didn’t know anything about disability accommodations.

She told me I’d have to get a full neuropsych evaluation, but that it’d be a long time before I’d be able to get one at University of Chicago Medicine (UCMed). I instead looked elsewhere to get a neuropsych eval done. I was able to finish the evaluation process and was recommended accommodations, but not without trouble; it took me almost four months to get through the evaluation process and I still had to tolerate microaggressions from the people who were evaluating me. 

I wanted to use my second year (2019-2020) at UChicago to show that I could grow, and overcome the challenges I had faced first year, but the complete opposite happened. Instead, my life spiraled into chaos. My focus shifted from academics onto my mental health, and I was obsessive about it. I had almost no emotional support; my friends weren’t very supportive and my parents were the root of all my problems. I was running to psych appointments downtown and neuropsych evaluation appointments halfway across the city by train. I was over-reporting hours to afford rent, psych appointment copays, groceries, going out with friends, entertainment, and more. My psychiatrist sent me to get a blood test and we found that I was vitamin D deficient and very underweight because of the medication I was initially prescribed by my psychiatrist at Student Wellness, who never sent me to get a blood test or checked my weight.

I was spending excessively, I had a lot more energy than I normally would’ve, I overcommitted myself, I was taking on more projects than I could handle. I struggled academically because of all of this. My problems related to academics from first year only worsened and the stress of my family’s financial situation led me to over-report hours more and more. I realized after this happened that these were symptoms of mania caused by the medication that the psychiatrist I saw at Student Wellness prescribed me. 

But still, my professors were not very accommodating. I tried to complain to a University administrator with the help of a mentor from an RSO I was in, but was redirected to my adviser and it didn’t get anywhere.

Yet, at the end of winter quarter 2020, I was called into one of the University offices. I was informed that I had to be reported to the College for over-reporting hours. I got an email from a University administrator soon after to set up a meeting. During one of my first meetings, while I was crying in their office about a problem at home, they asked me if my dad was absent, something I interpreted as a racist comment, and they seemed to realize it after they had said it.  Instead of pointing it out, I kept quiet about it. 

The disciplinary process worked for me similar to the way it’s described in the student manual.

After writing a statement, I met with two University administrators that I’d have to go to trial (instead of being let off with a warning). I was told that I could bring a friend, family member, or significant other, and that I’d have to notify them ahead of time if I planned to bring an attorney, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone and went in alone. I met with the subcommittee a few weeks later. I tried to let them know that my mom losing her job was a huge financial stressor at the time. After we met, they released a statement, recommending disciplinary probation, but I’d have to wait until the full Committee met for a final decision. 

A few weeks later, after the Associate Dean told me that the Committee meeting would be postponed due to COVID-19, I found out informally from an email that I was suspended, effective immediately. After receiving an official letter from the full Committee notifying me of the terms of the suspension, I did try to appeal, arguing that my mental health and not being accommodated for it was the issue along with my my mom losing her job, but it was not successful. 

The following year was the worst of my life at that point. My self-worth was tied to academics, because of that Nigerian parent influence, and being suspended meant that my life was over. My mental health worsened over the course of that year. I was constantly under stress; I had an ongoing lie about “taking a year off” and at the time that made me isolate myself. I had given up completely on my life and my mental state worsened. I was left without UChicago’s resources and was too worried about the pandemic to find a job (it’s mandatory to work while you’re suspended). I was too afraid to find a job outside of UChicago because my parents worked in healthcare and I didn’t want to get them sick. Mental health isn’t something you talk about with your Nigerian parents, so my family was not a source of support at the time. I had no emotional support outside of friends; I spent a lot of the year running away from my parents. Eventually I left home and returned to a traumatizing living situation in Hyde Park, where I had racist roommates. I was also hit by a car in August of 2020 and developed other physical health problems from the event, which only added to an already stressful situation. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features at some point, but I think that a lot of my symptoms came as a result of the trauma and stress that I was experiencing (and with the birth control that I was on). I looked into suing for malpractice, but I didn’t know what to do and didn’t have the resources to at the time. 

Eventually, I took a medical leave of absence as we started having in-person classes again, missing out  on a lot of necessary social interaction. My medical leave was somehow worse than the suspension. I felt neglected, but unfortunately my experience is not uncommon. A few students at Brown University have also experienced the neglect that I did when I was on leave. I have a tendency to socially isolate, and because I was neglected the isolation slowly worsened my mental state. I was completely cut off of the university’s resources, including access to Student Wellness. The most I could do was call the Student Wellness Therapist-on-call hotline and they only offer emergency services that aren’t at all therapeutic. 

My parents’ financial abuse was a point of stress for me, and they were the only support that I had. Instead of relying on them, I worked, jumping from sublet to sublet every few months in Hyde Park, relying on donations from organizations and crowdfunding to support myself. The isolation that I experienced during this period is almost impossible to describe. At some point around this time, I did call the Student Wellness therapist-on-call hotline because I desperately needed someone to talk to. But instead of being consoled and directed to resources, I was told that I shouldn’t commit suicide because if I did, my younger brother (who’s also a UChicago student) would be 50 percent more likely to do the same. I tried to explain what happened to me with other people as well, but the stigma surrounding mental health, and my diagnoses were a social barrier. 

The stress of social isolation landed me in the hospital in March of 2022, when I met the UChicago alum in the psych ward. Psych experiences are sometimes traumatizing, but I’m happy to say I had a somewhat positive experience. I’d lost all hope for my career at that point. I felt that meeting a UChicago alum with the same major as me was a sign that I could still do what I wanted, especially because we had a conversation about UChicago astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who I found out died the week I was in the hospital soon after I left. I was determined to return to school after the hospital visit. While I was in the hospital, I spent a lot of time trying to collect the proper documentation so that I might be able to return. I tried to return to school in the spring, but was not properly informed of the process of returning from leave beforehand, so I went into it without notes from a psychiatrist or therapist and my request to return was denied. 

But I was still determined to get better and come off of leave. I’d talk to as many people I could about it even though I’d get turned away. The more I talked about it, the more I realized that what happened was not my fault and that I was facing an institutional issue. I didn’t get the help I needed when I needed it, and I experienced prejudice and stereotyping which only delayed the process of healing. The “care” that I had received from SDS and Student Wellness left me traumatized and vulnerable to other traumas. There’s been absolutely no accountability from Admin or Student Wellness and my mental state has worsened. Almost every day while I was on leave, I thought about how my life would have been if I hadn’t gone to Student Wellness. I attempted to return again in winter 2023 and while I’m officially off of medical leave, I’m still experiencing some difficulty. 

What happened to me is surprisingly not uncommon. Schools aren’t always sympathetic to students’ needs, and unfortunately students usually don’t have the resources to sue. Mental health services at UChicago seem to have improved since my suspension in 2019, likely because they merged everything. I’m happy to see it, but there’s still a lot that needs to change. Although social support is especially necessary for immigrants—especially Black immigrants who might experience more stigma in their communities—they’re much less likely to make use of mental health services due to miseducation about mental health. Like anyone else, Black people first turn to friends and family to talk about mental health struggles, but if we don’t have supportive friends or family, it’s necessary for schools to provide the proper services to students who really need them. 

In the process of trying to find support, I heard anecdotes of other students going to Student Wellness and having to taper off their medications because their psychiatrists were not communicative or, worse, being forced into medical leave and not being allowed to return. I’ve also discovered  that this isn’t a problem unique to UChicago; students across the country with mental disabilities face discrimination and usually don’t have the resources to fight back. 

A group of Yale students were suing, and Yale made some policy changes in response. A former Yale student recounts her story of her involuntary withdrawal in “Yale Will not Save You,” one of several essays in The Collected Schizophrenias (my favorite book). Her story led me to several others and was the inspiration for this piece. Change is obviously possible; here are some changes that I think would benefit UChicago students.

First, I think a larger selection of psychiatrists and shorter wait times would be a great benefit. When a student is experiencing an emergency, a month is a very long time to wait for an appointment. 

All students who go to Student Wellness for medical assistance should first be screened for trauma and directed to the trauma-informed services if necessary. Student Wellness doesn’t seem to offer services specifically for victims of trauma. Stanford has something called the Confidential Support Team, and Harvard also has trauma informed practitioners. UChicago students, especially sexual assault victims, would benefit from a service like this. 

Additionally, SDS or Student Wellness should offer their own neuropsych evaluation services. If a student is diagnosed with an illness at Student Wellness and wants accommodations with SDS, they should be able to be evaluated at school and not have to wait a year to be evaluated at UCMed. Finding the time to travel across the city to neuropsych eval appointments while taking four classes was very difficult for me. 

There needs to be more guidance for students on medical leave. As I mentioned earlier, I felt neglected while I was on leave. My leave was originally only meant to be a quarter, but because the terms of leave weren’t explained to me very well my leave turned out to be over a year long. I felt like I was in a waiting room for a lot of that time. I didn’t have a supportive family and was working to afford therapy, psychiatry, and medication, for almost a year when I could have just been going to Student Wellness and seeing a therapist every week for a month. Working only stressed me out and made me worse. I think to prevent this from happening to other students, school administrators or possibly Student Wellness should check in on students regularly and confirmation that a student is seeing a medical professional or has access to medical services should be required. If a student doesn’t have access to their own services, students should be allowed access to Student Wellness’s services for the entirety of their leave. I personally thought I needed a consistent in-person therapist, but because I didn’t have one, I should have had access to the university’s medical services, but I did not.

I think the process of applying to return also needs to be reevaluated. If students have access to medical services and are checked on regularly, then it won’t be necessary for a student to reapply to enroll in classes again afterward. 

Additionally, there needs to be more communication between Student Wellness and SDS, and the terms of medical leave need to be made clearer. I was persuaded into taking medical leave by the head psychiatrist at student wellness during autumn quarter 2021. I wanted to take the time off to recover from what had happened, but I had a bad relationship with my parents and didn’t want to go through them to use my insurance. While I’m not sure if I can say I was forced into it, I was traumatized, and I didn’t really know what was going on. I was made to feel like I didn’t have any other option. This is not uncommon. The terms of leave should be made clearer. I was supposed to use this time to recover from trauma but was further traumatized because I didn’t receive the help I needed. Student Wellness currently only offers services to students who are enrolled. Students with mental health struggles should not be treated like liabilities and instead need to be treated as people with disabilities. 

There needs to be more accountability with psychiatrists. I’ve had multiple friends complain about their student wellness psychiatrists. Hearing these horror stories prevented me from going back to student wellness for help. Students’ complaints need to be taken seriously. The person to whom I tried to report the psychiatrist I saw was patronizing and completely ignored my needs, so nothing changed. When I told them how my psych diagnosed me he said “maybe that’s just her style.”I heard that the psychiatrist I saw originally still diagnoses students the same way. 

Finally, I think we need an environment of understanding. The UChicago administration needs to take mental health issues into account during trials. My problems were belittled, and I was subject to racist questioning when I was on trial. 

This is just my account. “Black” is not a monolithic group. It’s more a diaspora of people who may experience prejudice in similar ways. I wanted to highlight that people from different parts of the African diaspora along with people in general who may struggle with mental health and receiving the right care might experience institutional issues. I can only speak for myself as a child of two Nigerian immigrants. I hope that this piece can help anyone who can connect with it in any way and raise awareness about a problem that I don’t think is very commonly discussed. Thankfully I’ve recovered from a lot of what I’ve been through and I hope that this piece can help anyone heal from whatever it is they need to heal from and encourage anyone to share their story. 

 Hopefully, this article will shed light on this problem and Student Wellness will take the necessary steps to resolve this issue. No student should seek help and end up regretting their decision. Students should know that help is there and that for students who come from backgrounds similar to mine, having reliable support outside of family is absolutely necessary. Making mental health services more reliable and more accessible for students who need them is absolutely necessary. Mental health is as much a medical issue as it is a sociocultural one. It’s important to have conversations about our experiences so that we can normalize them, move past them, and foster a positive, more loving community. 


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