January 23, 2015

Got an SOS? Go to SCS!

Student Counseling Services doesn’t deserve the bad rep.

Last spring, I couldn’t find the energy to do anything productive. Each day felt the same. Activities that I used to enjoy seemed pointless and unfulfilling. It was scary to think about my lack of motivation, because then I felt guilty about how little I’d accomplished. All I could focus on was how upset I was, but I was too afraid to bring it up to my friends in case they thought I was boring. To make myself feel better, I tried baking, running, jamming to Madonna until I got a headache, sleeping all day, and staying up all night reading Orson Scott Card books. And not even the good ones, like Speaker for the Dead. Lame ones, like Hidden Empire.

I was halfway through The Worthing Saga when I realized there was something wrong with me thateven Card novels couldn’t fix. It was hard to acknowledge that I was the victim of an illness that I couldn’t control, but I’m glad I did. I went to Student Counseling Services, and they helped me get better. A counselor talked to me about how I felt and how it was affecting my life, and gave me options for treatment. About two weeks after I started taking medication, I felt ten times better, and right now I am sitting on the couch watching Criminal Minds and eating cookies and feeling as normal as I have ever felt.

However, many others won’t be that lucky, beacuse of the worrying campus sentiment towards Student Counseling Services. A past Maroon article, Sarah Zimmerman's, “Those who fall in the middle (10/4/14),” cautioned people against using SCS for anything more than “less pressing problems with schoolwork or a relationship.” Many students seem to view SCS as a manipulative tool of the university preoccupied with removing potential liabilities from campus. The story of the anonymous student in Zimmerman’s article, who was hospitalized against her will, is frightening. But it is only one anecdote—like the story I shared above. Regardless of which side can find the most, or most terrifying anecdotes, one thing is true: the University climate that warns students away from Student Counseling Services is extremely disturbing, especially because SCS is sometimes the only affordable option.

Zimmerman dismisses SCS as people “who are willing to lend an ear.” My Spanish Lit TA was willing to lend an ear. The professionals who work at SCS have medical degrees. They can talk to a student, discuss her concerns, suggest treatment, and prescribe medication, as they did for me. I had depression, and if I had been told that student counseling was only good for help with a breakup or the stress of a demanding schedule, I never would have received the professional help I needed to feel like myself again.

Mental health care is subjective, and students who have had bad or uncomfortable experiences with SCS could have had similar experiences with private counselors. Sure, the University of Chicago and the SCS want to keep students from self-harming on campus, but primarily they want to keep students from self-harm. A perceived overreaction on the part of SCS is more likely an experienced counselor wanting to ensure a student’s health and safety than it is a side effect of a flawed University system.

My friend finally went to SCS last year, after many months of anxiety and depression.

“My therapist was kind, professional, and incredibly intelligent. He helped me reframe my problems, noticed trends in my behavior, and gave me tools for dealing with anxiety,” she said.

My friend and I have had good experiences; other people have had bad experiences. But to write off SCS completely as useless or coercive frightens students away from the services of highly educated professionals who may be able to help them overcome many different psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, addiction, or disordered eating. Mental health issues are incredibly difficult to acknowledge, and deciding to get help is harder still. It is irresponsible for us to discourage struggling students from taking advantage of the expertise provided by SCS, especially because SCS is sometimes the only affordable option for professional help.

Maya Handa is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy.