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Why I still have hope

Editor’s note: The author of this column was granted anonymity due to the intensely personal nature of the events described previously.

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I saw an anonymous post on Tiger Admirers the other day that broke my heart. Someone wrote, “I literally have heard 0 good things about [Counseling and Psychological Services]. But I’m scared that without seeing someone I might hurt myself or worse. I have periods where it gets pretty bleak and I don't think very straight...”

To that student: this column is the one good thing about CPS that you have not yet heard. It’s the reason you should not hesitate to find help if you feel you need it.

Sometimes it’s really easy for me to get frustrated at the University administration for various things, and I’m tempted to write them off as stubborn individuals only looking out for their own interests.But despite my feelings, I don’t think that’s actually the case.

I admit it sounds like a non sequitur — but I know it’s not the case because they made me cry.

The tears came when I opened up one of the forms that I needed to fill out to apply for readmission to the University after taking a mental health-related leave of absence. The “Questions for Treatment Providers” form, previously a monstrosity of 14 detailed, invasive and alienating questions that prompted my op-ed last year, now only contained three questions: dates and types of treatment, thoughts about safety and simple recommendations for future treatment. Three small questions. That was it.

I cried out of relief, out of gratitude, and because I had a restored sense of hope in our administration. I almost couldn’t believe it — they actually responded to our requests for mental health reform.

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We asked them to demonstrate trust in the counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists that students would have seen during their year off; they did exactly that byradically revising the readmission form.

We asked them for more transparency; they released a detailed FAQ about the mental health withdrawal and readmissions processes, and they set up recurring office hours open to any student who might have questions or concerns.

They showed their commitment to providing quality mental health services by increasing their hours of operation, including mental health programming during freshman orientation, reintroducing workshops about how to help a struggling friend and more.

Last year in my column, I wrote to the administration: “I understand that you are concerned for students who find themselves in these difficult situations and that you have to worry about liability issues, but the reality is that mental health’s stigma in our society presents an enormous obstacle that prevents students from reaching out. Please understand that Princeton’s current policies and procedures surrounding mental health and withdrawals do little to alleviate the fears of students who consider seeking help (or not). And though you may believe you have the students’ best interests in mind, you may in fact be contributing to the problem.”

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They listened. They considered our appeals. They changed.

And I really appreciate that.

Just one small caveat — I still had to be “evaluated” by someone at CPS after returning to campus in February, and I was encouraged (but not absolutely required) to sign a release form that would allow the CPS personnel to discuss a limited amount of information with the administration. I opted to sign the form (as a show of good faith), but even this caveat wasn’t a bad experience at all; the evaluator assured me she would only tell them things I was comfortable with her sharing. We spent the last 15 minutes of the evaluation going through what she would say, nearly word for word, until I felt okay with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that the administration has responded perfectly in every way or that there’s nothing left to be done. For example, I know there has been some disappointment with this year’s Mental Health Week programming. Additionally, when students do make a decision to take time off for mental health reasons, it is still inherently a difficult and scary process; there is a lot the administration could do to alleviate this, ranging from anything as small as giving students “going away” care packages to creating a specific staff position for providing compassion and encouraging support to students during their withdrawal process.

The administration might still mishandle some individual cases; after all, they’re human. But if this were to happen, we could and should bring it to the surface, so they have a chance to take that feedback into account moving forward, just as they did with last year’s op-ed — because I do believe they care for us students, deep down.

In closing, I am encouraged by Princeton’s compassionate responses so far, and while acknowledging that the journey to quality mental health policy is not over yet, I am confident that we can continue to make progress if we work together.

My hope perseveres.

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