Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Student psych-out: Adventures in Mental Health Services

By S.K. Murphy

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“So what’s been bothering you?” inquires the therapist who I’ve just overheard in the lobby griping about having to fit another basket case into an already over-packed afternoon.

So it goes at Mental Health Services: A place made known to me last semester after one of my friends had a crack-up of sorts and had to call upon their services to salvage both her livelihood and her status as a full-time student at the University.

After much mincing about, this friend dragged her tired soles to Hills, a dilapidated structure that sits at the mouth of Thatcher Road and houses – among other things – MHS and two classrooms where I once had discussion sections. After only two visits, they began to supply her with a steady stream of anti-depressants. For her part, she thought they went down better with a gin and tonic.

And now here I am, in the hopes that I too may be cured of my hang-ups and calamities. Here I sit, with hands tucked neatly under legs that, in a tic I sometimes like to affect if I’m cold or nervous, have started to rap up and down on the floor. I’m wondering where to begin. I don’t normally have a problem spewing my guts out to a total stranger. I don’t have a problem doing it in general, really. I’m what you might call emotionally slutty. But here in this fine office, with its lovely view of a very fine, well-maintained lawn, I just can’t conjure up the moxie.

Should I start by telling her about my innards which may one day explode? About the four-year relationship that already has? What about the stories I have bothered to neither write nor assign, or the classes I haven’t attended in weeks? It makes sense that one of these items should go first, but I’m not certain which. Indecision has me in a sleeper hold.

“I’m having some problems… of a personal and – and academic nature,” I say, stammering.

But she wants me to get to the bone of the issues, and this leaves me tongue-tied. I slip off the obnoxiously large Nicole Richie sunglasses I’ve been wearing this whole time, revealing a face smeared with red blotches. Her eyes widen accordingly.

Maybe it’s the unblocked sunlight streaming in or her medical degree framed nearby that do me in, but for no particular reason my eyes start to cloud again with salty discharge. I sniffle and rub my balled-up fists against my eyes, apologizing quickly for being so impolite. Again she asks me what’s wrong. This time I get more specific.

“I think I may need to take some time off from school. I can’t seem to focus on anything at all,” I say, except maybe for books about killing zombies. She says okay, so I go on.

“But I went to my academic dean today, and I found out that I can’t leave now without having to leave for the whole year. So I came here.”

Now I give her an overview of what has led me to this place. It’s shallow, but I assume she’ll get more out of me as we talk. I figure that I’ll bare my heart and maybe soul. She’ll tell me what to do to make it all copasetic again. All she has to do is listen.

But instead, she talks about what happens when one leaves school this late in the semester, and this becomes the focus of our conversation. She asks me what I’d do if I left now. I don’t tell her that I’d want to be like David Carradine in “Kung Fu,” wandering from town to town, kicking ass and spouting noble samurai tenets. I assume she’ll find this impractical.

“Probably I’ll watch a lot of VH1 marathons,” I offer.

A silence, long and languid, falls over the room as she scribbles some indecipherable text onto a piece of paper – a casual gesture that shouldn’t mean anything, but when I notice it’s the back of something else (a flyer possibly) I suddenly feel affronted. She writes with the kind of haste that I might reserve for recording some snippet of pertinent information I’d been given offhand. A fast, furious jot on the first blank spot of paper I can get my hands on, but one that will likely end up crunched up at the bottom of my tote bag, only to be rediscovered several weeks later, it’s pertinent information now smudged and unreadable, even to it’s author.

Maybe this is why I’ve never liked therapy much. Forget the ease with which people decide pills are the only way to settle their problems – the real injustice comes from the fact that even in the best of settings, there’s always someone jotting down your life history like it’s something which they’ll eventually need to take an exam on. So they pluck facts they find relevant and discard those they figure won’t turn up on it; all the while, your history turns into a series of talking points and factoids.

I decide it’s better for the both of us (or maybe just me) if I stick with what she knows, so instead of airing all my woes like I intended, I just talk about the symptoms: insomnia coupled with a lack of appetite followed by too much of an appetite – for booze and hook-ups and class-skipping and all other sorts of ye ole college pitfalls.

She asks if I’m suicidal. She’s the third person from MHS to do so today, and I’m starting to suspect they have a quota to fill. This time, though, I press my teeth down softly on my lower lip and consider the question seriously.

“Only with regard to my academic career,” I finally reply.

She doesn’t say as much, but I detect a certain sense of relief has settled over her. Academic apathy is something she’s equipped to handle; life apathy is a whole other chest of drawers. With the single bead of sweat that’s been coagulating on her forehead now lost and safely forgotten on the floor, she goes about setting me on a tried-and-true path toward recovery.

Firstly, I have homework. Wasn’t she listening – doesn’t she remember that this is one of my problems? No matter, I’ve got to research my city’s job market. Is McDonald’s a better fit for my mental health than Wendy’s? These are the kinds of riddles I’ll have to solve before we can move forward. She informs me that in order to withdraw for medical reasons I’ll also need to prove that when I return, I’ll be able to complete my studies. To my chagrin, this involves frequent counseling.

Secondly – and this is until I make up my mind about whether or not it’s worth it to leave – I must try with all fury to apply myself in class and work. The zombies have got to go.

I leave the office a few minutes later, carrying business cards and a chip on my shoulder. As I make my way over Infirmary Way, I decide to give myself my own set of homework – a sort divorced from all the painstaking research and tender deliberation she has suggested.

My homework, quite simply, is to stop being a basket case.

S.K. Murphy can be reached at [email protected].


4 Responses to “Student psych-out: Adventures in Mental Health Services”

  1. Ed on November 4th, 2009 11:58 am

    Where the hell was the dorm staff and the rest of student affairs? Not to mention the academic advisor and a few other things?

    If we had true student affairs people on this campus, concerned with the students and not the political garbage they are concerned about, this student would never have needed to be over to Hills North.

  2. Alex on November 5th, 2009 11:26 am


    If by dorm staff you mean RAs and senior Residence Life staff then you might want to actually interact with some of the people in these positions before you make a blanket statement about the lack of commitment and empathy amongst those in Reslife and Student Affairs. Having been an RA I know firsthand from my own experiences and that of my colleagues how much time and effort is often devoted to helping troubled students who do come to us. It’s important to remember however that none of us are health professionals, and in the case of RAs we’re simply students (with the same time constraints as everyone else) invested in helping others in our community, and we always offer mental health services as an additional resource, amongst several others, although no student is ever forcefully pushed to seek them out.

    Also, many students feel uncomfortable seeking the aid and support of an RA (especially when there’s a class difference, few seniors will seek the help of a sophomore RA) and that’s perfectly reasonable.

    As for this article, just wanted to say it’s extremely well written (just be careful when you describe something as a “tic” because tics are movement urges that are extremely difficult to suppress, not something you choose to affect). Regardless, it was a delight to see something of this literary quality in the collegian for once.

  3. bill on November 7th, 2009 10:34 am

    Alex, I find little reason to accept your argument or opinions about RA’s in general solely on the basis of your “having been one;” there is an enormous discrepancy between ‘consistent’ services and the appearance thereof at UMass.
    I am familiar with fickle readers like yourself, who muster up all their writing skills to blast one article which they read in a period of 3 months. Don’t condescend the ‘literary quality’ of the ‘Collegian, because there are many successful stories and bourgeoning talents- take it with a grain of salt, girly.

  4. Alex on November 9th, 2009 2:35 am


    Thank you for your description of my reading habits. Actually I’m an avid reader of the collegian and am well aware there’s a wide array of writers who are quite talented on this campus. My issue with the collegian is that, while many of the articles on local issues are well done, some of the content on national issues is very poorly researched and, in the case of op/eds, written by individuals with little to no experience dealing with the topics they’re writing about (this is of course expected for a college paper but, again, the lack of adequate research highlights this problem). Also, the collegian as of late seems to have favored arts and sports events coverage over general campus news. While I understand why this might happen (it’s more convenient to simply describe this pretty straightforward content then to analytically dive into the issues on campus) it’s a little saddening since we all know there’s a lot going on that stays uncovered.

    My point on RA’s above was for the commenter to not make broad statements about residence life and I followed by simply showing how we’re trained to handle these situations and yes, I continued with anecdotal evidence (god forbid someone with actual experience comes forward to talk about it). I’m sorry if you’ve had bad experiences with RAs but again, your doubt and the previous commenters similar issues are just as weak kneed as my personal experiences. Unless you care show campuswide evidence of RA’s failing to help those in personal crisis when they were approached, we’re at a stalemate as to the quality of student staff and all I asked was for no blanket statements.

    I’m glad you think this requires all my writing ability; it’s a bit of a compliment; I guess run-ons are now in vogue.

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