March 29 2018
On March 15, I had the privilege of attending “Mental Health Matters,” an event sponsored by Lighthouse, a mental health support group for Wheaton students. There, I heard the story of Rachel Tsen ‘14, youth program director of the DuPage county division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Rachel struggled with depression, anxiety and panic attacks while at Wheaton. I knew who she was before attending the event, because I would also have been a 2014 graduate had I not taken time off, and we had worked on a class project together. Hearing Tsen’s story for the first time and seeing the faces of classmates I barely know around me that Thursday night, I was reminded that you never know how those around you may be struggling.
Around the same time as Tsen, I was also doing poorly. It was fall of my junior year at Wheaton in 2012. I was Features Editor for the Record, working an additional part-time job and taking classes full-time, while struggling to keep my head above water with anxiety, depression, paranoia and what I later learned was psychosis. I was constantly sick and my grades were dropping, so when my doctor finally told me over Christmas break that I had walking pneumonia, I was almost relieved. I could save face and take a leave of absence from school. I only planned to be gone for a semester, but I ended up fighting a four-and-a-half-year battle with bipolar disorder before coming back last fall.
Now I’m a 25-year-old senior, and I’m thankful to say that a lot has changed. I now know my warning signs and what I need to do to take care of myself. I still feel like I’ve lost half a decade of my life and that I ought to be 20, not 25. Though I know firsthand that some Wheaton students’ experiences are far from typical, sometimes I still give in to the temptation to feel singled out. So, I decided to see if I could find students with similar stories. This is what I found.
My search began with retention data from the 2016-17 Statistical Report prepared by the Offices of Academic Records and Services and Institutional Research. Based on findings from the report, I gathered that on average one in seven Wheaton students, or 14 percent, won’t graduate within five years. I also gathered that if a student doesn’t graduate in five years, they’re unlikely to graduate at all. The freshman retention rate at Wheaton (the percentage of freshman who return their second year) is 94 percent. In comparison, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), in 2015 the freshman retention rate for four-year schools in Illinois was 78 percent.
Some students take longer than four years to graduate because they’re double-majoring, but others take longer because they’ve chosen to withdraw or to take a leave of absence. Allison Ash, dean of student care and graduate student life, told me that the most common reason students take a leave of absence is for mental health reasons. On average, 18 students withdraw per academic year and 14 students take a leave of absence, she reported. A withdrawal must happen during a semester, and doesn’t include students who simply don’t come back from summer or Christmas break. Students may withdraw for virtually any reason, but according to Wheaton’s Student Handbook, “the purpose of a Leave of Absence (LOA) is to provide students time away from Wheaton College for treatment of a physical or mental health condition that impairs a student’s ability to function successfully or safely as a member of the Wheaton College community.” Students wishing to take a leave of absence work with Student Development to navigate the process.
It’s important to note that not all students leave in crisis or distress. Some transfer or take time away to intern or work or figure out what they want to do. Some leave for financial reasons. But others leave because of health challenges — mental or physical — or because of the difficulty adjusting to the demands of college life. I sat down with four different students who, like me, have had to take time off.
First, I spoke with senior Sarah Burkhardt, an interpersonal communications major. If you’ve ever been to the local Chick-fil-A in the last three-and-a-half years, you may have seen her working there (in part to help pay her way through college). Burkhardt was born with a cleft lip and has had seven corrective surgeries. The most recent surgery took place last September, so she decided to take the fall semester off. She had hoped to have completed all the necessary surgeries before college, but her father died her freshman year of high school and the process was put on hold as her mother took on greater financial and parenting responsibilities. Last semester, Burkhardt took classes part-time at College of DuPage and worked at Chick-fil-A to pay for her tuition there. “The surgery ended up being a lot less stressful than I thought,” she said. “But I think I recovered better and did better without the extra stress of full-time classes, and I definitely don’t regret the decision.”
When I asked Burkhardt if she felt supported by Wheaton students while she was gone, she said that she felt that as a whole people could have done better. She added that a lot of people discouraged her from taking time off, saying that she might not come back. “There might be truth to that,” she said, “but I think it’s not necessarily like that. And if you need time off, if you need a break or you’re really struggling, it is worthwhile to take some rest.”
Next I spoke with Burkhardt’s younger sister, junior Allie Burkhardt, a business economics major. Allie took time off from Wheaton both last semester and this semester. At HoneyRock in May of 2017, Allie’s hair began falling out in clumps. By the end of August she discovered that she had alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease where a person loses all of the hair on their body. Before it happened to Allie, she’d never heard of the condition, for which there is no cure. When she went to the dermatologist, she was told her two options: get a wig or participate in clinical trials. “At first I thought this wasn’t a reason to take off school because it’s just hair, but I think the emotional impact and the extreme change caused me to see that taking a break would probably be a wise choice,” Allie said. She plans to return to Wheaton in the fall.
This winter, I discovered that I’m not the oldest undergrad on campus when I ran into another student who decided to take time off about the same time I did. He is also a 25-year-old senior, studying mathematics. He preferred to stay anonymous in his interview.
On academic probation when he left, this student was struggling to adapt to Wheaton both in academics and in the hyper-social environment of freshman/sophomore dorms. He feels like he’s grown in maturity, he explained, saying that has helped in his return to Wheaton. Since returning, he’s done well academically and feels more comfortable living off campus. Some students now call him “the dad of the class,” he said. Besides his relationships with two brothers who still live in the area, “all other relationships are starting from scratch,” he said. “So it’s been tough, but you find people that are friendly and that are wanting to meet new people so it’s not too bad.”
I also spoke with junior Tristan Veldt, a history major who hopes to go to grad school and work in an archive or teach college-level history. In retrospect, he said, he wishes he had taken a gap year because, at first, he didn’t know what he wanted to do after college. He started out as a business economics major because he thought it would help him get a job.
“Honestly, it really sucked, not relating to the business econ department but just doing something that I didn’t have a passion for,” he said. He had also dealt with depression throughout high school. By his sophomore year at Wheaton “it got really bad. It really affected my academic performance. I pay for half my school here, so the bad grades weren’t just a waste of my parents’ money, they were a waste of my money,” he said.
Veldt doesn’t regret taking time off last semester. “Definitely should have done it sooner,” he said. “It was really good just to take the time to deal with those mental health issues. Not that I wasted two years of college, but I definitely struggled through two years unnecessarily and most of that was just because I feel like there’s a taboo toward taking time off.”
Dr. Toussaint Whetstone, the director of the Counseling Center, told me that many more students have mental health concerns beyond those who take time off for them. For students who choose not to take time off, the Counseling Center has specific strategies in place to support them. Whetstone said the Counseling Center sees 21 percent of the student body — that’s approximately 600 students — per academic year, without accruing a waitlist. You can get in to see someone in an average of 7.16 days, he said. Students in crisis are able to be seen the same day. The Counseling Center has even started to call in therapy dogs monthly in Lower Beamer.
In speaking to members of the Wheaton College community, I’m reminded of the many needs that our community faces. But I’m also encouraged by hearing Tsen’s story at the Lighthouse event, and by the resilience of these students. For those who are struggling with these types of challenges — mental or physical conditions or trouble adjusting to college life — know that you’re not alone.
For more information on Lighthouse, email firstname.lastname@example.org.