Letter to the Editor: The HCC Failed Me

Submitted on 3 March 2020

Letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Quest or the Editorial Board.

CW: Mentions of psychiatric institutionalization and suicide

On a Friday morning, at 9:15 a.m., 911 was called. When the EMTs arrived, I sat on a stretcher silently, blinking back tears, my mind blank with stress, fear, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. When the counselor, Alma, told me she was calling 911 my heart dropped; there was no reason for it. I had been at my appointment for less than fifteen minutes, and she had no idea what was going on with me, but those fifteen minutes were all it took for my counselor to decide an ambulance and the police were necessary.

I was not a danger to myself or to others. I was coherent, clear-minded, and aware of what was happening. I knew better than to try and get out of it. The cause of all of this was, of course, my desire to go on a walk the previous night. But I knew that going on a walk alone at night was not safe, and I wanted to be safe, so instead I called my friend, who called an Area Coordinator. After some mental health first aid, I was deemed not at risk and allowed to go back to my dorm to sleep, provided I went to the HCC the next morning at 9 a.m. I arrived at 9:03 a.m. and texted my friends “they’re sending me to a mental hospital” at 9:15 a.m., which seems like a fairly short amount of time to decide someone needs to be put on a psychiatric hold. Especially considering I had told her I was feeling better and had no desire to end my life, which I never had, remember, I just wanted to go on a walk, that I did not go on because I cared about my safety.

I wish I hadn’t gone to the HCC on Friday morning, but I thought they would help. They were not there to help me. They could not care less about my wellbeing. Their focus was on implementing a plan that they had come to without consulting me at all. I, the patient, was simply dragged along as they did what they pleased with me. I went in thinking I would get a therapist recommendation and soft voices asking if I was okay, instead I was greeted with sirens and mock concern over the trauma they put me through.

Alma didn’t find what I said important, because, despite me following my safety plan (I called a friend, should I not have called a friend?) and saying that I did not feel I was at risk, she set a traumatic experience into motion, while I watched helplessly. She knew the experience was traumatic, she apologized for it, but she still went through with it because it suited her.

It’s difficult to explain the fear, vulnerability, and paralysis that come with being told to sit on a stretcher by people who think you are “crazy” and incapable of being rational. I did what they said because there was an ambulance and where there is an ambulance there are police. At that moment, I was just some mentally unstable person, dangerous and untrustworthy—to protest would be to invite handcuffs, police involvement, and onlookers—so, I bit my tongue, handed the EMT my jacket, and laid back in the gurney. As they wheeled me out I saw a CSO, I tried to make eye contact with him, some familiar person who wasn’t in the process of failing me, but he avoided it.

My friends had asked if they should come, but I told them no, psych patients have no rights, and they would probably just be told to meet me after I was evaluated. En route to the hospital, the EMT called me “cooperative,” which made me smile because that is all I was, complacent—a mentally ill non‐white teen who, if anything but compliant, would not be treated well. I wanted to joke around with the EMT, to show him I was alright (I didn’t even know why I was in the ambulance, on the way to a place that held significant trauma for me), but he avoided eye contact and discussion, too. I don’t know why I expected anything more. At the hospital, a doctor and social worker asked me questions, determined I was not a risk to myself or others, gave me (another) safety plan, and allowed me to leave.

In the process of calling 911, my counselor went in and out of the room to talk to her supervisor (Jesus Christ, how much time did she even spend with me before deciding the highest level of intervention was necessary? Five minutes?), and the door had locked behind her. I was sitting there, curled up in the chair, beside myself with fear, unable to talk as my mind and body shut down in some sort of trauma response, when she began pounding on the door, jiggling the door knob, screaming that she needed a key within seconds of realizing the door was locked. It took me a moment to process (I wasn’t really mentally present) before I got up and unlocked the door. When she came back in she began to stroke my arm up and down, asking if I locked the door in a way that made me feel even more like a child. I hadn’t, and she apologized. But from that, I knew she had no trust in me, and I wasn’t sure why, but I told her I was safe, what else could I do?

There was nothing I could do to stop what was happening because what was happening did not begin with me, it began with my counselor’s overreaction. Whatever flawed process caused and allowed my counselor to dial 911 with no sign of distress or suicidality from me was out of my control—everything was.

They called 911, not based on anything that had been happening at that moment, but because two years prior I attempted suicide. It didn’t matter if I was better, it wouldn’t have mattered if my depression was cured; they saw my history, and they made a decision that I was not part of. They did not ask me about the previous attempt. They did not know that I knew I had made a mistake that I regret everyday by attempting. They simply decided to base every part of my treatment on a single risk factor. Their decision profoundly impacted me but had nothing to do with how I was when I came to get help. Their decision was based on minimizing their chance of being sued rather than on my wellbeing.

Afterwards, when I had gone to plead my case, I was betrayed, turned over to a hospital simply because they were closed over the weekends. I have been told it was the right decision, a sort of, “better safe than sorry.” But they destroyed my trust, took away my medications, and told me nothing except for that I deserved it because of a decision I made at 16 years old. They told me to sign a paper to go on emergency leave while I was in distress, told me that this decision was best for when I was already safe, and offered no apology. They told me the decision to call 911 was the right decision, that it benefited me, but every time I remember what happened—my loss of autonomy, the paralyzing fear, the fact that they can just strap me down whenever they please, I can’t help but cry—I reap no benefits but the effects are deep.

I wish I could go back and refuse transport, but I had been petrified to the point that every part of me had shut down. What would have happened to a low SES student who could not afford an ambulance bill? To someone who did not have friends they could be released to? I suppose that isn’t important to the Health and Counseling Center.

I’ve lost all faith in the HCC. I remain unsure of what to do if a friend is ever in significant distress, as I remain apprehensive to subject them to the same treatment as they put me through. It might have been necessary in some other situations—if I had ingested some substance, if I had said I planned to do something, felt unsafe, or if I did not know where I was—but I had no means, no plans, and was doing everything I could to get better. And if they think it is appropriate to call the police on me for following their advice, what will they do to other students?

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