I was a ‘Student of Concern’

By Kate Jackson (story) & Dominic Guarino (art)

Content warning: This story contains passive references to suicide and self-harm.

Image 1 description: Drawing of a silhouette of the student’s head, in profile. Inside the student’s mind are four colorful characters: a green blob with a zigzag mouth representing confusion; a red blob with furrowed brow representing anger; a blue blob representing sadness; and a yellow, ghost-like blob representing fear. A scribbled, squiggly line representing gibberish is coming out of the student’s mouth like a puff of smoke.

Sometimes you take a leap of faith and still things may blow up in your face. You might try to do exactly what you worked on with your therapist or counselor – communicating your needs, talking about something traumatic or troubling for you, or possibly bearing your soul to a close friend.

My struggle to communicate has always been paralyzing, stuck in a place where I can barely grapple with my emotions while simultaneously trying to balance the realities of work and classes. This struggle is worsened when the recipient of these conversations cannot conceptualize depression and anxiety. There is a distinct line between those who experience it and those who don’t. But after emerging from a particularly intense bout of depression, I felt like I could try to talk with my friends about my experience. Instead, upon hearing words like “self-harm” and “suicidal thoughts” they ran to the Residence Life office, fearing I was close to suicide – which I was not. The nuance of depression was lost and the ‘reality’ of my mental health was suddenly everyone’s concern.

Image 2 description: A drawing with a diagonal dividing two panels. On the left panel, eleven dominoes are neatly arranged in a small circle. A hand with its forefinger poking one of the dominoes, causes them to start toppling. On the right panel, a single, large domino is collapsing on the student, who appears much smaller than the domino. The student’s arms are raised, as if trying to bear the weight of the falling domino.

Maybe you’re thinking that it was for the best that I was reported as at-risk. Let me show you why it was not. A chain reaction with the label of ‘help’ only scarred me and made my life more difficult. Strangers berating me with intrusive questions left me overwhelmed and scared to be in my room. Suddenly, I was crushed by the forces of ‘concern’ for my welfare, struggling more than ever.

Image 3 description: A drawing representing multiple perspectives of an arm holding an old-fashioned, corded phone. Voices coming out of the phone are interrogating the receiver, “Are you a threat to yourself,” “Are you a threat to others,” “Do you have intentions to kill yourself?”

I don’t even know how many times I was asked if I was going to kill myself or if I was a “threat to myself or others” around me. Sure, these questions are probably requirements but they were incredibly counterproductive. Not only were these check-ins coming a month after my depression, but no one offered any real help. No one asked if there was a trusted person I could call or have come over to ensure I was not alone. Despite my statements that I was not in ‘crisis’ that is exactly how I was treated. I was deprived of any agency in a conversation around my own mental health – there was nothing I could do to stop these check-ins nor could I ever predict when they would happen or end.

Image 4 description: A drawing of the student in her dorm room. On the left, outside the room door, are anonymous observation notes written for Student # 7893612: “liability to the school,” “a danger,” “problem,” “will never learn.” On the right, the student is reaching for the window, but attached to her leg is a 1000 lb ball and chain.

I could feel the crushing weight of this new label I had earned – liability. The overwhelming and unhelpful mental health check-ins were paralyzing. I was suffocating from the ‘help’ from people who were not mental health professionals. The pressure of their questions and inspections made it impossible to reach for the light. Suddenly, my room – once a safe space – was transformed into a jail cell where I was incredibly aware of how vulnerable and easy it would be for it to be invaded once more. There was still no place to hide.

Image 5 description: The back of the narrator’s head, which is a mop of yellow hair. She is staring at the phone on her left, which is silent now, and on her right, a thought bubble indicates that she is thinking back to how the phone was constantly ringing before.

I continue to deal with the trauma these events caused, working with my therapist and psychiatrist as well as relying on my true friends. Yet, as quickly as I surfaced onto the radar of the mental health lookouts, I just as easily fell off. There were no more knocks at my door, no more calls to my phone. At the time, I was just glad to be rid of it. Given further reflection, I have realized that this sudden silence highlighted how little care there was actually for me – me as a person and a human. Yes, I was a student of ‘concern’ – but the concern was actually for the reputation of my school and the liability I created.

Editors’ note: Kate is a student at Rutgers University.

Students of Concern | The Ableist | Neurodivergent-U