A "bad" counselor

Published on 2024-03-14

Content warning: suicide (this one's way heavier than my articles usually are)

So my university, like many these days, provides some counseling services. Ostensibly, they're supposed to help you with a wide variety of personal problems, from school stress to chronic depression, though if you were to ask any people with chronic depression about them they'd probably tell you they do a lot more of the former than the latter. Most know better than to seek their help.

Nonetheless, there are many counselors in the world and very few therapists, so we do what we must.

There is one, however, that people would avoid like the plague. What made them so undesirable as a counselor was that if you told them that you're suicidal, they'd force you to go to the hospital.

I've known a few people who've found themselves in this predicament. One, a year or two ago, tried to argue their way out of it, but the counselor wouldn't budge. After a while, they said that they couldn't be taken by ambulance because they couldn't afford the bill (in my country, ambulances are free for citizens, but international students have to pay a fee for the service). They managed to squeeze out of the situation by calling me, and lying to the counselor about how I was going to bring them to the emergency room myself.

I did not, in fact, bring them to the emergency room. I don't even own a car.

It may be worth clarifying that when someone says that they're suicidal, they probably mean one of a few different things. There's levels to it, so to speak. On one level, there's thinking about suicide. In a more dire situation, one might try planning to commit suicide and in the most dire case, actively performing that plan. It is, however, possible and relatively common for someone to be torn on whether or not they want to commit suicide--they could feel compelled to, but know, at least on an intellectual level, that they shouldn't. They could be seeking help. They could be, say, reaching out to a counselor.

I've been to the emergency room with chronically mentally ill people many times before. It's not fun. It generally takes up to ten hours of waiting in a fluorescently-lit room, and by the end of it, it's not guaranteed you'll be admitted to the psych ward. I imagine there are few things as humiliating as being turned away from a psych ward for not being suicidal enough. These days, presumably due to a lack of funding, they only take those most dire cases.

Not to mention, there is a hard ceiling to how much value being admitted to a psych ward can provide you if you're not actively a threat to yourself. After a certain point, it can cause more harm than simply being given access to the supports you need in your everyday life.

The counselor, apparently, did not know that, and for whatever reason, was resistant to figuring it out. And for that, recently, they were let go

Unsurprisingly, their leaving was seen as a win by the many people whom they had hurt, and I agree. I think it's a good thing that they aren't providing mental health services on my campus anymore. On some level, though, I do feel like I empathize with them. At least a little bit.

I've never been suicidal, I suppose; that's a privilege I have. I can't say for sure what it feels like, but I'm not sure if I can imagine anything that'd feel worse. It is a truly dark place, to have no why sufficient to go on living. It challenges everything we conventionally understand about the value of life. To see someone you love in that place, while surely only a fraction of what they experience every day, is hard to quantify. It prompts us to act without thinking, to act irrationally, out of desperation.

I imagine that, not unlike the way most people couldn't begin to understand the suffering endured by those who live with chronic pain, there's an enormous chasm of experience between those who have and have not been suicidal. We do, however, know the immediate ramifications: the people we love are in more pain than we could ever imagine, and we may lose them forever, immanently and without warning.

In circumstances like these, it almost feels absurd not to call 911.

But, if we're to act rationally, we know we must not call 911. Those whom we love may be counting on us to act rationally. I wonder if this was something the counselor found themself unable to do.

Ultimately, it may have come down to a misunderstanding of policy. Often there is an expectation for professionals to get medical services involved when they discover that someone is an immanent threat to themself, but of course, it depends a lot on the specific circumstances. It must; only in some cases will calling an ambulance make a positive difference. More often than not, it'll just make things worse. A professional counselor should have known better. But I can't help but wonder.

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