February 2, 2023

WISE-ROJAS | Hello From Residential: When Health Leaves Are Needed

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Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of suicidal ideation, depression and other mental health conditions.

I’m not writing this column in my Ithaca dorm room, unfortunately. As a matter of fact, I’m not even enrolled in Spring classes at the moment. I’m writing this column in a time crunch because I have limited computer access where 90 percent of what’s on Google is blocked and my usual computer time is consumed by endless health appointments. I’m in California, a one hour car-drive away from my hometown of San Ramon, on a completely different coast. I’m in a psychiatric residential care facility, on a health leave from Cornell. A lot has happened since I’ve last published a column.

With that being said, there’s no place to gather the utmost inspiration to write like residential. You’re in an environment where you’re focusing on how to get better, rather than a competitive environment. I have a list of topics to tackle with my columns this semester; as is, my perspective on almost everything is evolving, and I want to continue to use my platform to educate myself and send messages to the Cornell student body and greater community. 

For this column, I want to focus on something I feared the most: taking a health leave of absence. Cornell students should not be afraid of taking a health leave for mental health, no matter what time of the semester it is. Students’ health will be better in the long run, especially for any mental health condition that is not acute (lasts a short period of time). The only way to help chronic mental health conditions, especially those that are interfering with school and when outpatient treatment alone isn’t enough, is to be bold and vulnerable. Advocating for yourself is key.

When a trusted adult in my life mentioned taking a health leave, I hated the idea. It felt like I was failing myself; I’m smart enough to get into Cornell, the last thing I wanted was to waste time, money and resources just because I was struggling. I told myself “everyone struggles, I don’t need to take a health leave. I don’t need major surgery, I’m not dying.” So, I thought that taking a health leave was honestly kind of dumb. After publishing my column on being honest with a counselor, where I detailed what happens after you ask for help when you want to end your life, I was on an upward swing. What I failed to understand was that I was, in fact, dying, just on the inside.

A month later, all hell broke loose again. I still wanted to die. I had another episode, ending up back in the same psych ward. By this point, I realized that this is how my life will be. I’ll work hard, struggle, have a couple psych ward visits, and repeat. The hospital felt like a safe environment, and that’s what I needed. I had nine visits to the ER for mental health last semester. I fell into this cycle of having episodes, calling for help, ending up in the ER, feeling safe in the annex rooms, calming myself down and ending up getting discharged rather than admitted. All this was going on, I was struggling to attend classes, and I still believed a health leave was not ideal. Looking back, that’s insane. I really needed help, and I needed more than just crisis management. 

People in my life started floating around the term “residential,” and needless to say, it sounded terrifying.

My psychiatrist in the psych ward seconded that, diagnosing me with borderline personality disorder (on top of everything I already had) during my final visit. Looking at my medical records was scary. My “problem list” was rather lengthy at this point: ADHD, major depressive disorder, BPD, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and PTSD. That doesn’t even include some of my physical health conditions. I was still trying to be a full time student, work as an RA and have an office job, have a social life, keep this column and maintain my dining editor duties for The Sun. I thrive off of stress, but this was getting to the point where everything was overbearing. Having a therapy session every week and seeing a psychiatrist two times a month suddenly wasn’t it anymore. 

I was weighing the pros and cons of taking a health leave, and it essentially boiled down to these factors: If I took a health leave, I could take time to go to residential, get the help I need, learn how to manage my conditions, possibly preventing future suicide attempts. However, taking a health leave required paperwork, meant I had to quit both of my jobs, possibly graduate a semester later than I planned. I needed money to help with the logistics of traveling, find somewhere for my car, to plan the logistics of flying with a cat and a fish, try to get into a residential facility, not be able to run for an editor position again for the next Sun editorial board, put my social life on hold, and navigate the murky waters of transferring prescriptions between states when there’s a billion laws. 

As you can tell, the list of cons was lengthy, but the few things on the pro list were powerful enough to outweigh the cons. It took a trusted adult to tell me, “if you choose to not get help, I cannot support that decision, and I’m saying this out of love.” I initially fought this person, but then I came to my senses. I decided in November that I was going to take a health leave. Here’s how the process works: after deciding you want to take a health leave, or even if you’re still deciding and you just want to find out more about it (which at this point, that’s where I was at), you can go to Cornell Chatter and in the same way you book meetings with your advising dean, you can book an appointment with the Heath Leaves Coordinator. Obviously, taking a health leave is different from just taking a leave without a health need, but what I can say is that heath leaves save your spot at the university and do not impact your financial aid. 

After you meet with the Health Leaves Coordinator, you make a decision if you want to go forward with the leave, and they will hold your hand (metaphorically) and guide you through the entire process. You are not alone, and many students take leaves. According to the National Student Clearing House, about 113,000 students took leaves of absence in 2021, which included leaves for mental health reasons. If you decide you want to go forward with the leave, you then have to decide to leave mid-semester or to finish the semester then leave. As hard as it was, I decided I was going to finish the semester then leave. This was the hardest time in my entire college career, I’m very grateful that there was someone to guide me through the process. 

There’s paperwork you can fill out online, then you have to get a hold of your medical records. For that, since Cornell already had records of everything, I authorized access to my Cornell Health records. If Cornell Health doesn’t have your records, the doctor you’re seeing can fill out certain paperwork. Your advising dean also has to fill out a form. It takes a few weeks for everything to process. Not as bad as I thought it would be. The hardest part, honestly, was all the personal logistics I had to figure out. 

I vividly remember the day my dorm was finally cleaned out, and there was nothing there except for me, my cat in her carrier and my pet fish in a cup. I looked around, and broke down into tears. I felt like just taking a health leave for mental health ironically made my mental health worse. I was upset. Mad that I needed a break. Scared at the person I was becoming. But as Gary, my therapist in residential has told me numerous times, everything is temporary. it didn’t really click, because I felt like I was drowning in hopelessness. Little did I know that the period where my mental health declined while trying to leave was also temporary.

Fast forward to today: I’m grateful I took a health leave. As long as you’re doing something productive with your leave that will help you with your condition(s), your health leave is worth it. It’s worth the few months in exchange for living a longer, better and happier life. What does it matter if I stay enrolled and want to die 24/7, constantly living on the edge, unable to enjoy the fruits of my hard work when college is supposed to be the time of my life? I’m finally able to enjoy things again. For a while that was impossible. 

Please reach out to me if you have any questions about anything I talked about or if any of this resonated with you. Share this with someone who is struggling — I hide it very well, I’m vocal about my struggles, and it’s okay if you’re not. You just need to take the time to be honest with yourself and accept your situation, knowing that you are not your past or diagnoses. Anything can be changed with time and effort. It’s hard as hell. But I promise, it’s worthwhile. 

Daniela Wise-Rojas is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. She served as Dining Editor on the 140th Editorial Board. Anything But MunDANIties runs periodically this semester.

Suicide hotlines:

Cornell Health, speak with a counselor 24/7: 607-255-5155 (extension x4).

Ithaca Crisis Line: 607-272-1616 or 800-273-8325

Advocacy Center (for sexual or domestic violence): 607-277-5000

National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 

Trevor Project hotline (LGBTQ+): 866-488-7386

LGBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564

TransLifeline: 877-565-8860

RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673

National Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 

Steve Fund crisis text line: Text STEVE to 741741 (especially for students of color)

Trevor Project chat service & text line: Text START to 678678 (especially for LGBTQ+ students)