Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

A letter to Stanford: Radical vulnerability

Writer’s note: CW: suicidality, mental illness, trauma

If, at any point, you feel triggered or need support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255; CAPS: (650) 723-3785; or The Bridge Peer Counseling Center: (650) 723-3392.


To my Stanford community:

My name is Hope G. Yi, I go by they/them/theirs pronouns, and this is my story.

On January 25, 2013, I was hospitalized at Stanford Hospital after making an attempt on my life. Everything happened so quickly, but I remember the pounding on my door at two in the morning; I remember being dragged out of my bed and ordered to pack an overnight bag with no explanation; I remember being shoved into a police car, where officers cracked jokes as I sat in the backseat, handcuffed and devastated; I remember being kept from sleeping in order to repeat and relive the same traumatic experience to 12 different doctors who processed my story as if it was just another piece of paperwork to fill out; I remember being gaslit by a Resident Dean, who told me repeatedly that everyone in my dorm was talking about me; I remember being hastily prescribed a medication regimen and handed a stack of papers in lieu of verbal explication of what was being imposed on my body; I remember being threatened with solitary confinement when clarifying that I wasn’t my Asian-American roommate after a nurse had consistently mixed up our charts; I remember not being allowed outside for a breath of fresh air until I had accumulated enough “compliance points.” I was kept at Stanford Hospital for two weeks, where I was stripped of my dignity and agency to exercise my basic rights. In the psych ward, where my very sanity was called into question, any appeal for humane treatment was seen as an act of non-compliance, a diagnostic for further mental instability, and justification for prolonging my hospital stay. For every night in the hospital, Stanford made money off of my residence. Against my will, I was coerced into notifying my parents about what had happened, despite the fact that home wasn’t a safe place, which was one of the reasons why I felt the need to take my life in the first place. After my hospitalization, I spent a month at La Selva, the local residential inpatient program, and then I went back to New Jersey, where I got a lot worse before I got better enough to convince the university to let me back in Autumn 2014.

I am reminded of my trauma every time when I hear pounding on doors, when I have panic attacks in the middle of classes, and even when people approach me for a hug; I feel my trauma as I scream, I tremble, I suffocate on dried tears and shallow gasps for air as the world seems to tighten its grasp around my neck. I feel my trauma when I see the faces of people who’ve hurt me not just in my nightmares but every waking day, even when they’re not there. Trauma is having your spirit tarred and feathered and wondering if you’ll live long enough to see the day your scars heal.

Ultimately, I needed my time off, and I don’t regret it. And I’m grateful to Stanford for giving me a second chance to rejoin the community and for providing me with the baseline accommodations that I’m entitled to, for which I had to fight tooth and nail, that I need to exist in this environment, which can’t be said for many other institutions. However, what I have serious reservations about is how Stanford managed my case in a way that scarred me and aggravated my trauma, and having spoken to a handful of other students, I know this isn’t the first — or last — time Stanford has mishandled a crisis case. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like there are a lot more of you, and I hope you know you’re not alone.

Since last spring quarter, I’ve been serving as one of the Mental Health and Well-being leads for the ASSU Executive Cabinet, along with Emma Coleman ’17. Motivated by my own distressing experiences with Stanford’s mental health support system to serve in this capacity, I’ve been surprised by the wealth of existing resources and organizations on this campus and have been lucky enough to connect with so many great people doing good work through this position. The Bridge Peer Counseling Center, meticulously organized, is available to students 24/7, Stanford Mental Health Outreach (SMHO) facilitates candid conversations to destigmatize mental illnesses, and other student-run organizations in the Mental Health and Well-being Coalition, such as Stanford + Mental Health, the Happiness Collective, Students for Body Positivity, Students 4 Resilience, Power2Act, We Continue, Survivor Peer Support Group, Kardinal Kink and SHPRC, have been doing meaningful work to serve students and help them survive at Stanford.

On the other hand, this position has reinforced the many ways in which Stanford continues to be limited in its understanding and support of mental health. Despite the efforts of some administrators — Carole Pertofsky’s work with iThrive, Alejandro Martinez’s peer counseling and QPR curriculum, Ron Albucher’s CAPS Student Advisory Committee (comprised of mostly grad students), and Chris Griffith’s single-handedly managing the Dean’s Leave of Absence (an entire department’s worth of work!) — Stanford does not do enough for its students, especially when it comes to mental health. This is not news. There are so many reasons why this is so, and having attended meeting after meeting, trying to figure out what to do about a problem that is so systemically rooted, I’ve found that, among other factors, there is a fundamental disconnect between administrators and the students they purport to serve. Especially in crisis situations, the consequences of this disconnect could be dire. Lives are at stake.

To be clear, I am not writing about my experiences to complain or to garner sympathy; rather, I hope that this calls attention to the hard and ongoing conversation that needs to be had about a topic that the university generally silences.

That said, something I’ve noticed in and out of the mental health community is somewhat of a hierarchy in the way we talk about neurodivergent experiences: It’s become increasingly more acceptable to talk about depression, and more people are beginning to open up about their bipolarity. But suicidality seems to be one of the most taboo topics — and at least for me, it’s because I’m afraid my feelings will be construed as dangerous or unproductive. I’m afraid Stanford will screw me over again and eject me from campus because my unhappiness with the way things are indicates to them that I can’t be “successful” in the way they want me to be. Bottom line: If you’re suicidal, you’re seen as a liability to Stanford and are, one way or another, removed from campus. “You can be suicidal, just not here” seems to be the common rhetoric, as opposed to one that revolves around genuine support and rehabilitation.

If you are willing and able, I call on current Stanford students and alumni who’ve had experiences with 5150s that authorize forced hospitalization and/or involuntary leaves of absence due to mental health issues to gently revisit some of those harder memories and think about ways Stanford could have done more for you; of course, your self-care comes first, so if this will be more harmful than helpful for you, please feel no pressure to share.

To best organize this effort, here is a completely confidential and anonymous Google form, in which you can choose to write about your experiences or schedule a time to meet with me in person. If you’d like a more public outlet for your story, the Mental Health and Well-being Coalition will be organizing an opportunity for you to share your experiences with mental health/suicidality at an event called “Take Back the Stigma” on Wednesday, March 1 for Wellness Week.

Whatever the next steps are from there, I pledge to be transparent in my actions and respectful of your time and space. I can’t promise an immediate change in policy or culture, but what I can promise is that I will do everything I can to make sure that your concerns are communicated to people who give a damn and can do something about it — with your consent, of course — and that your stories are respected. Your trust is sacred to me, and your courage will not be taken for granted. And whether you choose to share or decide you need to heal in your own way at your own pace, know that you are seen, you are heard, and you are loved.

When I was first diagnosed with mental illness, the first thoughts I had were: “Who will love me? Who will hire me?” I recognize I have a lot to lose from sharing my story so publicly, but over the past couple of years, as I’ve found homes in my QTPoC and neurodivergent communities, I’ve discovered that there is no dearth of love in my life, and it is this love that comes with radical vulnerability that supersedes my fear of rejection, that moves me to share my story with you today.

That said, let’s be real: I’m still struggling. I still feel insecure. I still get lonely. I take medication every day to numb the overwhelming urge to make myself disappear. I share this with you because one of my biggest frustrations with many prototypical narratives about mental health is that they rely on this whole overcoming-darkness-for-a-happy-ending script for consumerability. Well, my story is neither happy nor is it ending, and I hope those of you with stories know you don’t need a title or position to have credible ideas, and you don’t need to commodify your trauma or affix a success story to your narrative to be heard and valued.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.

In solidarity,
Hope G. Yi
(they/them)

Contact Hope Yi at hopeyi ‘at’ stanford.edu.