on mental health at brown
I see the death of Michael Dawkins ’13.5 as a tragedy—one that deserves care, attention, and mourning. I was blessed to have Michael as a friend and conversation partner, like so many others in this community. His presence hangs over all of us, even those who did not make his acquaintance.
Michael’s story helps us understand Brown better. The real Brown. Not the Brown of Princeton Review, our parents’ dreams, and our own hazy expectations, but the Brown in which we live and work. This Brown can be many things, depending on how the stars align.
And it can be a living hell.
There is a lot to be found beneath the veneer of cheery productivity, including the “normal” stresses of school work and poor self-esteem. We acknowledge and attempt to rectify these concerns. Massages, puppies, and an occasional talk on self-care take the edge off our collective grind. Mental illness, on the other hand, remains in the shadows, accompanying a long-suffering portion of the student body. Perhaps this is a function of simple ignorance, but it feels easy to ignore uncomfortable truths when they don’t have concrete names, faces, and narratives attached to them.
I would have ignored this truth, too, if my own college experience had not been marked by extreme mood swings, limited concentration, and a few brushes with suicide. If I share my name and face with you, I will probably never get a job offer, so I’ll settle for offering my story alone. I hope that my memories of Michael will have more substance as a result of our shared experiences.
We all come to college with baggage. I was one of those kids who’d been mocked for being gay at the back of the school bus. With my clunky glasses, overweight body, and persistent isolation, it felt impossible to belong to any caring community. It was easier to tear into my skin than to articulate the dull, incessant loneliness that wore away at whatever shreds of self-respect that I had left. I became hopelessly afraid of people, even when they reached out in kindness. I resented those close to me—my parents, my friends—for failing to save me from myself. My hope was that things would change after high school, that Brown would transmute emotional coal into gold. I left home with absurd expectations and a boatload of naïveté.
With the right social tools, freshman year can be a great time for reinvention. I did not have them. How do you introduce yourself to someone when your body and voice shake more and more with each passing moment? For a while, I was able to mask my severe social anxiety, and scraped by until mid-October.
Then it hit me. Wave upon wave of engulfing despair flooded my fragile mind and body, crashing around my heart and head while my faculties of reason surrendered to the siren call of oblivion. I stared at my bedroom wall for hours at a time, sometimes recognizing the standard issue whitewash, but mostly seeing the vast nothingness that had become my only perspective. I felt useless, evil, without inherent worth or dignity. Thankfully, there were a handful of people on campus who helped me when things were at their worst. I sat at the foot of one friend’s bed, crying and cursing in between spats of suicidal rumination, letting her pull me down from the cliff I had been treading. It was a lot to ask from someone I’d only met the month before, but sometimes a desperate plea gets an answer. I literally owe her my life.
Self-harm dissipated into self-loathing, a much less dangerous yet equally painful state. I eventually developed the inclination to prove myself, to justify my use of space, so I got out of bed to complete schoolwork and community service. Then came the mundane parts of major depression. I needed to get to class around the Main Green, but I would have a panic attack whenever I saw people on Thayer or Brown Street. That meant I had to drag my weighted limbs through residential areas, even if it took twice as long. Since my ability to concentrate was nearly non-existent, I was forced to scroll through the same passage three, four times to pick up its meaning. I ate dinner at the V-Dub at 4:30 p.m. sharp, the time when there were as few people to judge me as possible. Finally, at 9:30 p.m., I would go to sleep. This sleep was magical, touched by no dream yet always holding the promise of peace. When I woke up at 8:00 a.m. each day, I nearly cried at the prospect of re-entering a world that only meant me harm.
Spring Semester flipped my life on its head. A few days after I returned, I became absolutely euphoric. Everything was wonderful! Beautiful! Sacred! I could meet dozens of people at a time and feel awesome. I blew off classes to go on adventures, because YOLO. I would drink my way through the night, stumble my way to Loui’s, collect a new cohort of companions, faint by dawn, sleep for about five hours without feeling tired, and repeat the process the next day.
My time at Brown has bounced between these two extremes. One semester would be energetic, the next miserable. I sought help, which served to correct some issues, but left others entirely unattended. Psychological Services was able to refer me to an outside therapist for treating severe social anxiety, which was useful and justified. However, my actual primary condition was ruled out during the few (seven) conversations I had with an office psychologist, leaving me completely unprepared for the road ahead.
This elision only became clear in the summer leading into senior year. I was on a guided retreat, growing bored in the late afternoon, when I started hearing a voice. It was a pleasant, alluring guide. Soon enough, I believed that I had complete control over my mind, and spent hours alone tinkering with my internal mechanisms. There was a point when I had no control over what my body was doing; I lay on my bed, incapable of breathing, and saying my last goodbyes to the world. Eventually, I broke out of that dilemma, since hallucinations do not overpower necessary functions. While I felt powerful for a few hours, things only got worse. Following a few days of thinking I was a demigod, I was taken to a psychiatric hospital, talked into acknowledging my insanity, and given heavy doses of medication. Finally, I was diagnosed as bipolar. The unsettled mess of my college experience finally had a name.
It would be nonsensical to blame Brown for my problems. I enrolled with unaddressed psychological complications and a family history of psychosis; Open Curriculum or no, I was going to be miserable at college. Furthermore, Brown professors and staff gave me the resources necessary to create stable coping mechanisms. I am grateful for this assistance, especially given that I may not have received it elsewhere .
That being said, Brown’s medical leave policy deserves to be criticized. For the uninitiated, a medical leave lasts at least one year, forcing students to sever their ties to campus while trying to recover from an illness. If all goes well, the student goes home, reconnects with old friends and family, and continues her education through classes and internships while convalescing. There is, however, a shadowed side to the process. While the university liberally recommends medical leave for troubled students, there is no guarantee that they will return within the standard one year track, as there is a strenuous process for readmission. Furthermore, students cannot return early, even with demonstrated progress. It is also worth mentioning that medical leave is a blunt and often arbitrary instrument. Students who encounter major difficulties outside of Brown will never be bothered, while others will be obligated to leave by virtue of a relatively small incident.
Some students cannot return to a safe, dependable home. For all intents and purposes, Brown is their home and medical leave means being forcibly evicted from that haven. Even for those with more security, there is nothing worse than having life placed on hold, ushered away from friends and meaningful activities, and sent to deal with their issues without their usual support systems. People often avoid getting help for fear of being placed on medical leave, lying to deans and therapists alike. I do not blame them. I cannot see how a nonnegotiable eviction could further the healing process for the most vulnerable.
I first met Michael when he was on medical leave, about a year and a half ago. It was clear that he was not doing well. He spoke rapidly, sometimes without a clear train of thought, frequently interrupting conversation. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Michael was jumping from couch to couch in the Providence area during his time “away,” having everything on campus but the stability he needed to get better. Eventually, Michael managed to pass the official standards for readmission. I remade his acquaintance when he returned to the student body, getting closer to him earlier this fall. He seemed like he was in a good position, though he expressed concern about where his future would take him.
Michael is now dead. He was found in Peru after a search was conducted on campus, yet few other details have been released to the public. Is Brown responsible for this outcome? I cannot say. Would he have been better served by other policies? Definitely. There are more humane ways of managing mental illness than simply throwing sick students on the street. It may cost more money and administrative time. It may increase liability. But it is impossible to place a value on the life of a student. We must fight to keep Brown a safe space for all.
A specter is haunting Brown; the specter of mental illness. I am not alone, nor is Michael, and neither are our stories unusual. It is time to remove the stigma preventing discussion. With a few brave voices, we could end a great deal of suffering.