The trouble with returning

This article comes from the Global Desk, a collaboration between The Gazelle, WSN and On Century Avenue. Read more by searching ‘global.’ This is a personal essay.

New York City — As my return to Abu Dhabi draws near, it feels only right to reflect on why I left prematurely during my freshman spring semester abroad — and why, although I have missed NYUAD dearly, I have mixed feelings about going back. I have been fairly silent about the reasons for my departure, but I was touched and inspired by James’ recent opinion article in The Gazelle. James is one of the many students beginning, slowly and surely, to speak out against the state of mental health culture at NYUAD.

The practice of sending students home or to New York for treatment has become an endemic part of our university’s mental health strategy. Like James, I am one of several students who had to leave NYUAD — by force or by choice — when things became too much to handle to receive help that could not be provided on-site. This practice has been due either to a lack of resources on our small campus, or the legal limitations of living in the UAE.

Freshman year, my anorexia and depression reached a point where I became seriously worried about my health. Unable to receive the treatment I needed locally, I was put on the first flight home to Sydney. My summer was spent in and out of treatment, and I was re-admitted to NYU New York in the fall, where I would be able to pursue my studies while benefitting from the extensive counseling and resources available there. At the time, the decision made sense — NYUAD was a new campus with a small student body, and our Wellness Exchange could only offer so much.

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Almost 18 months later, I am healthier and happier. But I cannot help but wonder: has Abu Dhabi changed? If not, do I feel comfortable returning? The news from campus does not give me much hope. The campus health center is still chronically understaffed, with only one certified counselor. There is no on-campus psychiatrist or nutritionist. Policies regarding sexual health and substance management remain unclear. This is particularly dangerous at a campus where common forms of dealing with untreated mental health issues, such as sex and alcohol, are punishable by law. In Abu Dhabi, these are not just short-term, destructive ways to take your mind off things — they could land you in jail.

Voicing my concerns in a meeting last month with associate vice chancellor for NYUAD dean of students David Tinagero, I was told there is no current “demand” needed to warrant a full-time nutritionist or a psychiatrist. This attitude is dangerous on a number of levels, particularly in a small community of students under pressure to live up to the admissions office’s sales pitch: to be “the world’s most talented students.” In the end, we are just like college students at any selective university, and our high SAT scores do not suddenly impart us with the capacity to “reason our way” out of the toxic body image or feelings of loneliness common to university students today.

If anything, possessing the traits of an academic — intense drive, sacrifice and calculation — only exacerbate one’s capacity to self-destruct quickly, while concealing it from themselves and others. This is not simply an Abu Dhabi issue, as suicide rates for young people between 15 and 24 years of age have tripled since the 1950s, and college campuses are barely keeping up with the demand for mental health support. Students at NYUAD, however, are put at an even greater disadvantage due to the legal limitations on certain types of health care in the UAE.

Seeking help is never easy, even with hundreds of specialists at your disposal and the level of awareness and support available in a city like New York. A few girls have come to me about their own struggles with eating disorders, and I worry when I hear groups in the dining hall discussing their plans to go carb-free. What if they take it over the edge? What happens if they do not know where to look for help? They will push themselves to keep it together, until they can push no longer.

You might ask, is not it the same if you suffer from an untreated mental illness in New York? Not quite. When you need that breath of fresh air, Abu Dhabi is not the place to watch a show, chat with a cute guy or walk past a crazy performance artist on the street that briefly takes you out of your own head. When things get bad in Abu Dhabi, they get bad fast. Of course, distractions are available if you look hard — but I know that at my worst, it was hard enough to get out of bed, let alone do the research, call a taxi and convince my overworked friends to join me on a spontaneous ‘fun day.’

I am happy and proud to hear that students in Abu Dhabi are reacting to the current situation by forming their own initiatives like Reach Peer Support. My friends in Abu Dhabi have been my lifeblood, and we have each other’s backs. Our friends are not therapists, however, and there is only so much we can rely on each other to make it through the tough times. We should not have to pile these issues on our loved ones, and we should not have to feel a burden on our school’s administration if we need extra medical help.

People have asked me if I considered my health needs prior to accepting my place at NYUAD. All I can say is, nobody goes to their dream school with the intention of developing a life-threatening illness. It just happens.

Moving forward, should NYUAD continue with its current medical policy of transferring students to seek medical treatment? This is both costly and disruptive to their well-being, leaving already fragile students feeling uncertain about their futures, detached from their home campus and panicked about the completion of academic requirements.

Alternately, should prospective students be explicitly warned about the lack of support available in Abu Dhabi? “If you need [insert service], you are putting yourself at risk by coming here.” This policy risks creating an admissions procedure that explicitly discriminates against individuals with a certain medical history and is ignorant of the fact that many of these illnesses do not develop until their early 20s.

I feel ready to return, but I am scared of relapse. I only want to balance my studies and recovery in Abu Dhabi as I was able to at the New York campus. But I am scared that nothing has changed.

Email Isabelle Galet-Lalande at [email protected]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Isabelle, I am touched by your candor and bravery. I am a recovering alcoholic and food disordered. I also happen to be embarking on my second year in Abu Dhabi. I have not (thank God) had a mental health crisis here, but I do have to consider my health maintenance strategies and I do have some professionals I deal with here. Sometimes I do well at maintenance and sometimes I slide by, which is risky but it’s real. In any event, I am older than you and an educator, yet I would be happy to…

    • Dear Suzanne,
      Thank you for your comment. We’re really glad that Isabelle’s article is ringing true for others in Abu Dhabi. If you’d like to continue the conversation with her, please email the Global Desk at [email protected] and we can connect you! I’m sure she’d like to hear from you.

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