October 16, 2019

LIM | Why I’m Choosing Not to Seek Professional Mental Health Care

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A well-meaning friend recently responded to my apology with an invitation to try going on antidepressants. After I politely declined, he insisted that it worked wonders for him and suggested I really think about it again. And so I have, and I stand by my initial position.

I am accountable for my own mental wellness. Me not opting for professional help means I do not want to outsource the work I know I have cut out for me; it is not my refusal to admit a problem. It means I’m noting how I approach parallel contexts and understanding my relationship with my health from there. I’m the person that would sooner consume a mouth-numbing amount of oranges and force myself into bed at 10 p.m. than even consider Aleve (though I suspect that’s pain relief medication, which I’m about as familiar with as the theorists whose names I nod along to in Klarman conversations). There are people for whom medication or weekly counseling is precisely the type of support and anonymity they know they need for themselves, such as my friend. But by paying attention to broader patterns in my life, I know the honest solution to my disquiet lies elsewhere.

Professional mental health services can mirror what a priest recently said in a sermon about confession: It is easy to use it to substitute the difficult work of directly resolving an issue between yourself and another person. If sin is the absence of love, then restoring love in my relationships (with myself, just as with others) calls for the courage to grasp my problems with both hands and feel for what they lack.

There have been points where I’ve tossed in the back of my mind the possibility of going to Counseling & Psychological Services as a substitute for taking an immediate step back from the stress I felt accumulating. Going through a tricky break-up my freshman year, I decided caffeinating myself numb would be less disruptive to managing other areas of my life than taking a step back to process what had happened. Both on inter and intrapersonal levels, the point at which I find myself really needing to address a situation is often too late. Whatever I find too indulgent to make space for — a call, an emptied afternoon —  as various negatives accumulate is likely precisely the pacemaker needed. It’s hard to notice reality distorting when what we dismiss begins to employ the bulk of our faculties to suppress.

But the recent damage of maybe my most important friendship made me process what my beliefs mean in practice: Nothing that I do — no passion or pursuit that in excess creates stress — could ever measure up to honoring the people in my life, the safeguarding of their wellness and the groundedness of intimately understanding myself. It’s hard to know where the lines are drawn between responsibility to our external lives and to our internal selves. It is precisely because no external metric or system demands attention to the latter that we ought to keep account of it for ourselves.

Ensuring the sustainability of our self-support is tricky. There are only so many mental health equivalents of oranges and napping I can do for myself before I need to turn to a friend. And there’s only so much a friend can do before I realize the need to distribute the load and they realize the need to draw boundaries. In some cases, we encounter so earth-shattering a crisis that our existing support systems are ill-equipped to absorb the shock. Yet, completing the weekend-long Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training gave me two primary realizations. One, that although it’s important to prepare more people to process this taboo-dilemma with a friend or stranger, none of us should have the illusion that we are anything more than a facilitatory step in a longer, idiosyncratic process. Two, and this one really stuck, that even in crisis, no external figure should strip from an individual the autonomy to make the final call on the shape of their safety plan and the nature of the help they need.

The diversity of mental health needs are so great that we need to do the work of understanding what we need for ourselves where perspectives from others fall short. By the time I heard a second presenter go through the same set of slides on the oversubscription that pushed CAPS to remodel their services, I had begun contemplating these changes and their publicity in a less inspired light. Does the knowledge of their increased accessibility distract from more intimate forms of support we could be seeking? Does the decision to address the oversubscription of professional mental health services by increasing them also unintentionally narrow our understanding of our widest set of options?

There are only so many counselors Cornell Health can house, so many cliched “Thrive” cards they can print, so much an institution can do to support us as we learn to know ourselves. The more intimate we grow in understanding our situation over time, the more precise the solutions we seek for ourselves can be. The more we sustain this self-knowledge and grasp of what really matters over continuously prioritizing external demands, the less the collateral damage we inflict on ourselves and others in negotiating the balance between our needs and what the world calls from us. Fall break was a helpful buffer, but in the future I hope to not need it.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column failed to include available mental health resources through Cornell. Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

Kristi Lim is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Riskit Kristi runs every other Wednesday this semester.