Why I Left Yale: Mental Illness & Higher Education

mental health & illness

One of the most spectacular failures of my life came out of being ill.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the summer before I was to begin at Yale as a member of the Class of 2005. My psychiatrist determined that I would begin treatment once I arrived there — across the country. Alone. 18 years old.

I saw it as a chance for a fresh start. It was a time in my life when I was reckless and didn’t care much about what happened to me. When I was still reeling from the abusive boyfriend, the sexual assault, the boundary-crossing relationships with both men and women. When I didn’t know how to say no to people, or how to ask for what I wanted. You know, 18-year-old problems.

I received poor care from the psychiatrist that I was assigned to at Mental Hygiene. That was what it was called: Mental Hygiene. Like my brain needed to be scrubbed clean, which it did. Some of my new friends knew that I was going to Mental Hygiene. One of them, a girl from an Asian American performance group I was a member of, told me in an elevator, “Don’t ever, ever tell them if you want to kill yourself.”

“Yeah,” someone else chimed in. “Never. Unless you want to end up in the hospital.”

I said I wouldn’t. (Think about this piece of advice: never tell anyone that YOU WANT TO KILL YOURSELF.)

“They have a bad rap,” the girl said. “I know two people who’ve ended up in the hospital because of that.”

In the spring I became manic, and then I became depressed. Despite the sage words of my fellow Asian American performance artists, I went to Urgent Care. I ended up in the psychiatric hospital, and as we began to discuss my discharge, Yale administration told me that I would have to leave unless one or more of my parents, who were living and working in California at the time, moved out to Connecticut. Said parent(s) and I would have to live in an apartment off-campus.

I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. I define myself through overachievement. There was no way that bipolar disorder was going to keep me from going to my Evolutionary Biology class, so my mother — whom I didn’t have a good relationship with, at the time — and I moved into a small apartment near campus.

I was still very ill. I specifically recall lying on the floor of the kitchen, sobbing and screaming, while my mother frantically called my (new) psychiatrist. But leave? Never.

I became terribly ill again my sophomore year, was hospitalized, and then the gauntlet came down: I had to leave. While I sat, stone-faced, in the dining area of the WS2 unit, the Yale administrator told me that someone would have to confiscate my student ID, someone would have to pack up my things for me. In a year, after proving that I could survive through classes taken elsewhere, they would consider allowing me to return.

Grief doesn’t begin to describe it. They wanted me on a plane back to California the next day. They wanted me out of the hospital, out of New Haven. My dad — bless his heart, he’d come from China to be with me and to deal with the bureaucracy — booked a hotel room for Chris and me to be together for one last night; he didn’t tell the school. (In the hotel room, the school called. Were we in New York? They were checking on us. Yes, my dad lied.)

That was the beginning of the end of my time at Yale University.

My husband, whom I met when I was a freshman, graduated from Yale in 2003. I feel a mix of shame, jealousy, and bitterness every time I look at his diploma, which hangs in his work office (the diploma is good decor for the parents he works with; Chris is blessed with boyish good looks). I went with him to his five-year reunion in 2008 because after leaving Yale in 2003, I had never returned to New Haven, nor seen most of our mutual friends.

So much of it hadn’t changed. The air was the same — that stifling, heavy air that reminded me of trudging across Cross-Campus with my backpack. The Educated Burgher served the same unnaturally chocolatey milkshakes. The bells still rang. Those bells in Harkness Tower. My heart broke every time I heard the bells.

I attended the reunion as Chris’ guest. I wrote beneath my name, “Jonathan Edwards, ’05,” because I didn’t want to be thought of as an unknown guest, a silent partner. I used to belong here, I wanted to tell everyone.

I was still obviously grieving.

By the time I went to the reunion in 2008, my mental health had improved tremendously. I’d finally found a mixture of medications that needed to be adjusted up and down occasionally, but that fundamentally worked to keep me stable. And as I drank wine at the events, and looked around at all of the people who had graduated five years before, and possessed that diploma that I wanted so badly, I wondered if it was true that I didn’t belong there, at the reunion of the school where I’d placed all of my dreams of escape and intellect and hope when I was 18 and stuck in my small, suffocating hometown.

Our mutual friend J. was there. He’d snuck into the reunion because he didn’t want to pay. The whole thing, he told me, made him sick. He hated that people recognized him and wanted to talk to him. He hated having to make small talk with those people. He smoked furiously and looked miserable.

“I was so depressed here,” he said. “This place. It’s just such an awful place.”

And he had a diploma.

Learning is one of my favorite things in the world. It’s my jam. But institutionalized learning happened at a time in my life when I wasn’t okay enough to do it — by which I mean, the learning. Middle school? Ha. High school? Hell in a handbasket. College? ‘Nuff said. Graduate school? Better, but no dice.

Sometimes I ask myself if any of my time at Yale was worth it, and I think about bells and Chris and the exhilaration of the first day of my linguistics class, when I asked more questions than anyone else, and answered more questions than anyone else, too. It wasn’t the right time for me, or my ailing brain; the school wasn’t equipped to deal with the problems that I was having, and I don’t know if, with liability and suicides on campus, schools will ever have the right solution in hand to help their walking wounded.

But I don’t hate myself for that so-called failure anymore. I wasn’t the only one who failed, then.

Resources:

How to Assess a College’s Mental Health Offerings (NYTimes)
More Mental Illness Among College Students (PsychCentral)

NOTE: The last few weeks’ comments have disappeared, due to some conflicts between Disqus and TypePad. I’ve now switched to TypePad Connect for my commenting system, which should work. My apologies for the mishap.

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Comments

  1. I’m getting kicked out of my college this very week for this very reason.Of course, I’ve had a long “leave of absence” to mull things over for myself, but truly, this couldn’t have been more timely.

  2. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about people who fetishize mental illness. This used to be a huge problem for me. (I don’t remember if I talk about it in the Jezebel article that I was interviewed for, but I brought it up when I talked to the writer.)& I had to laugh (sadly) when you mention the school psychiatrist’s mental response to you, because I feel as though it is SO INCREDIBLY TRUE.
    Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate that you shared your story here.
    xx

  3. I remember this happening, & being gobsmacked & worried for you– Mental Hygiene. So effing spooky. They failed & betrayed you at Yale, but look at you– you showed them.

  4. Liz

    They’ve changed the name since (just a year or two ago) but not necessarily the procedures for helping those who need it most. Yale’s not what it’s made out to be for everyone, for many reasons, and I honestly think it’s what you do with your life outside of college walls that matters.SY ’04

  5. It’s so comforting, for some reason, to see another Yalie here, responding to this piece. Yes. It is what you do with your life outside of college that matters. I don’t know anything about your life, but I hope and hope that you’re doing something spectacular. And I know that I am. That’s all that matters, in the end. Thank you for commenting.

  6. A very similar thing happened to me at school. I got depressed enough to be hospitalized twice during my junior year. My school tried to force me to take a leave of absence. I’m not sure how it happened, but I think my social worker managed to convince them to let me enroll in a partial hospitalization program, which entailed me commuting back and forth between school and the hospital 4 times a week.I was obsessed with staying at college then and for the most part I am glad I did, but after a few years I began to assess the cost of doing so. PHP or not, I didn’t deal with my mental health issues properly; I was angry at the way health services dealt with me, as if I were more of a potential liability than a person; I couldn’t focus enough to actually retain anything I was taught in class; some of my friends were complete assholes about my depression; and I got into an abusive relationship with someone who fetishized my illness (I guess someone people really get off on having a partner who is more emotionally vulnerable than they are). And for a long time afterward I didn’t discuss my depression honestly with anyone, because I also believed “don’t ever tell anyone if you want to kill yourself.”
    You definitely didn’t fail, Meggy. I think both of us were in school when Elizabeth Shin killed herself at MIT. Sometimes I wonder if my school’s psychiatrists looked me and all they could see was “Depressed Asian girl! Legal liability! Loco parentis! Alert alert alert!”
    Thanks for sharing your story… I really appreciate everything you write about mental illness.

  7. Oh my goodness, this is like reading my own story! Holy cow!I had a strikingly similar experience, though I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until a little later into my time at University. Nevertheless, the combination of my internal struggles and a series of terrible treatment experiences resulted in my college career eventually imploding on itself.
    That feeling you describe, that “mix of shame, jealousy, and bitterness”, that sense of not belonging where your heart yearns to belong – God, do I know that feeling. To this day I can’t walk on the campus of my University; it’s too crowded with grief and ghosts.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It has been years since that experience, which the deepest part of me still sees as a spectacularly public failure. My husband is currently enrolled in one of the country’s top MBA programs at the moment, and every time I have to explain to one of his professors or classmates that I don’t have an undergraduate degree I feel a little more of my self-confidence wither and die.
    At the same time, though, I’m beginning to really make a concerted effort to change that mindset. I’m an intelligent, well-read and capable individual who has manged to be a success as a small businesswoman despite the limitations of my unfinished education. And that is something to be proud of.
    Thank you for your vulnerability and openness with this post. You’ve spoken words of healing for so many who are struggling through a similar grief.

  8. When you said, “…it’s too crowded with grief and ghosts,” I knew exactly what you meant. Grief isn’t just about people dying. That’s what I learned from what happened at school.And what happened to you, while not ideal in the slightest — I just want to hug you and say, over and over again, You’re not a failure, you’re not a failure. You’re a person who has an illness. That illness makes it hard to go to school. But I also know what you mean. Like I said. I look at Chris’ diploma and imagine what mine would have looked like.
    You’re an “intelligent, well-read and capable individual.” YES! YES! YES! I am proud of you. You are proud of you.
    You’re amazing. Go, go, go.
    xx

  9. Hey, Meggy,Reading this post inspired me to share my own experiences with mental health on my own blog. It’s really wonderful to hear about your experiences. Feeling like other people understand the way that I feel always helps me deal with those feelings.
    Also, Yale’s mental health services sound pretty lame. I like to think that Stanford’s are pretty good, although it can take ages to actually get an appointment. And you’d better hope to be “all better” within 10 visits! Sigh…

  10. I’m truly sorry that this is happening to you. It’s a terrible experience; I hope that you have people to support you, and that you are able to have strength. I’m thinking of you.

  11. Hi Sophi! I read your post — it was really moving, and I could relate to it on so many levels. Stanford’s mental health services are, in my opinion, better. At least they offered me disability status when I enrolled. Take care. xx

  12. Thanks so much. I have been home for a while already, so I have leveled off and I it doesn’t sting as much, but I am still so grateful for pockets of shared experience in places like this. The internet felt very unfriendly for a while, and seemed like it was just “rubbing it in” (I still have not been able to re-activate my facebook). Your blog has been the first virtual place to make me feel in some small way like a participant rather than a voyeur.

  13. The Internet CAN feel really unfriendly. I’ve been dealing with that feeling a lot lately — where do I fit in, etc. But I think that the fact that so many people came out and commented on this post is a sign that there are like-minded people out there.I’d forgotten how sad I was when Yale took my email away. All of my emails, including the first two years’ worth of correspondence between my now-husband and myself, disappeared when they deleted my account.
    I’m glad you’re here.
    xx

  14. jgentleman

    I had a breakdown my junior year there in 1994. I had been dealing with depression for two years (since freshman year), and my doctor finally gave me prozac. I have found that all anti-depressants are like poison to me: I started writing on the walls, my roommate moved out, and I attempted suicide in April, the “cruelest month of the year.” This was the beginning of a nasty mixed (or dysphoric manic) episode for which I stayed in Yale/New Haven hospital for a month, followed by time at the partial hospital program. It took me eight years to return to the person I was before all of this began, in part because I never found the right combination of medicines. Maybe they do not exist for me. Needless to say I never went back to Yale, and I can’t say that I regret this decision. It seems like the system ten years later deals with severe mental illness with the same uncaring attitude. I guess we are not common or important enough for them to change their behavior.

  15. BR1Y1

    Meggy.thank you so much for this post. I have a friend who just went through the same thing. She was feeling really low and told her froco, who told her to go talk to a professional. They immediately shipped her off to yale psychiatric hospital and kept her there against her will for 14 days. I visited her every day for those two weeks, and in that span of time, five other students were forcefully brought into YPH. Two (including my friend who was a freshman) were forced to withdraw. The other one was a senior like me, literally six weeks before the end of his final semester. He already had 35 credits and only had to finish his senior essay and they wouldn’t even let him stay for that. Not even when his father came out from California to speak to them and ask them to at least allow him to graduate. My friend was told it was a liability issue. They are being super cautious because a student committed suicide last year. I haven’t ever been to Mental health (they’re calling it that these days) but I feel so betrayed by Yale and so angry that I’ve gone through four years thinking Yale was absolutely the best place on the planet and not realising that there are students who have to go through this type of stuff.

  16. I went to Harvard, and managed to graduate from there, but it was a rough road, that involved me being kicked out of school for a year because I was too catatonic with depression to attend classes. Kicked out of school for a year– the same punishment you get if you’re a rapist or otherwise assault someone. Pardon me if I don’t think this was on the same level as not being able to get out of bed. I was angry about this for a long time.Your post was amazing– thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been through so much rage for what happened with me, that I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you. The Ivies are obviously great schools, but the quality of the mental health care there is severely lacking.

  17. I’m at Emory, which isn’t quite Ivy League but is run by people who are very much focused on the same level of conventionally-defined success (become a doctor!). Things seem quite bad here, too. I thought it was just us that encourage students to overcommit until they broke themselves, but it’s beginning to seem institutional.This post was really well-done. Thank you for writing it!

  18. This was an interesting read, though one which left me quite worried. While I haven’t actually even been able to get enough high school credits to move on to university, I was more or less urged to drop out of IB Diploma Programme because I simply couldn’t figure out how to cope with social anxiety, group projects and the stress of studying. For some reason I still yearn to go on to further education because I do love academia, but the concern is always there: will I cope? Will I make it? What happens if I break down? I don’t know how different things are in Europe where I intend to study, but this did at least make me seriously re-consider trying to apply to any US institution.

  19. evitable

    I think it’s outrageous and completely unnecessary that you were forced to leave Yale. Isn’t that considered discrimination? I had a severe depressive episode while a sophomore at Stanford and found the counseling center and deans to be supportive, but I was never hospitalized so I don’t know what the response would have been then. I later had a very bad experience similar to yours while I was on a Fulbright scholarship as well as with a former employer who I had counted on for references. It’s hard to let go of my anger at what I thought was unfair treatment on their part. I’m wondering how you dealt with that?
    In any case, thank you for sharing.

  20. Hmm

    I have a few problems with this piece. It tugs with angst at the heartstrings, but Wang articulates very little about whether or not she made any effort to return to Yale, the ACTUAL circumstances that prompted her departure (Yale doesn’t force you to leave simply because you have bipolar disorder), and whether her lack of readiness for college was perhaps a larger force than Yale for her unhappiness.
    “I became terribly ill again my sophomore year, was hospitalized, and then the gauntlet came down: I had to leave.” You’re only hospitalized if you do or say anything that suggests you pose a harm to yourself or others. Is it solely an institutional failure that Wang was forced to leave?

    I’m sorry but sometimes it’s the imperative to take time to figure things out before you can come back to pressures of college. Improved mental health services can’t fix you if you can’t entirely focus on yourself. Given her lack of self-reflexivity about this, I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened to her had she come back.

    Some people need to realize that you *can’t* do college unless you’re ready. REALLY ready. No matter what supports are there.

    Wang’s story is unfortunate, but the underlying grudge/institutional resentment dangerously undercuts the importance of self-care for students who may be going through a similar experience. The institution can’t save you unless you are taking steps to save yourself.

    • Nikkina

      The thing with Yale is that the administration won’t lift a finger to help you even if you are trying your hardest to save yourself.

      I was forced into a treatment program by Yale because the health center decided I had an eating disorder (I didn’t, and I have the medical records to prove it). When I came to my dean sobbing and terrified that they were going to kick me out of college, still only 17 years old, he told me I should just go along with what the health center told me to do. No recourse. And this was a situation that was clearly VERY illegal.

      When I came down with depression a year later (due to a lot of factors, but in no small part due to the continuing harassment from Yale itself), I eventually decided to take a year off. And Yale, by the way, definitely can force you to leave — I just was lucky enough that I was still well enough to get to make my own decisions. Now that I’m trying to come back, I just want them to accept my one semester of outside credits so that I can assimilate back in with the normal semester cycle, but no dice. If I return, my punishment for being ill will be thousands more dollars of debt and quietly graduating in January, months after all my friends.

      I don’t blame Wang for having “institutional resentment.” Hell, I have it too. None of us expect Yale to save us, we just want them to get out of the way enough to let us save ourselves.

  21. Tate

    I suffered from depression during my time at Yale and had to be hospitalized during my sophomore year therefore I can relate to a lot of what you talk about in your post. Although I agree that mental health services at the school leave a lot to be desired, I cannot help but feel that you seem to think that Yale was solely responsible for your mental health. As soon as I started reading your post I found myself wondering why your parents would even let you go off to college in a new place alone so soon after getting that bipolar disorder diagnosis and while you were still “reeling” from the various traumatic experiences you listed. It sounds as if some of the other relationships you had were not very helpful either. In addition, you do not talk about what you yourself did to try and help yourself manage your condition. Please do not get me wrong, I am not trying to belittle or trivialize the immense struggle you had to go through and the tremendous strength that shows even in your writing. I am just trying to point out that there were a lot of factors at play in this situation. Whether or not Yale made the right decision in asking you to leave I cannot judge but I can only urge you and others to think about these factors.

    • Nikkina

      Whether or not there were other factors involved, the point is that Yale does a terrible job of creating a support system for students struggling with illness, mental or otherwise. And considering that Yale bases its entire marketing strategy around its extensive student resources, personalized assistance for students, and opportunities for personal and academic growth, it deserves criticism when it fails to deliver on those promises.

  22. I remember when this was going on & just not understanding, assuming that colleges, especially big fancy expensive ones, would try to help, but no, nope. Ugh. You’re better than Yale by a wide margin.

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