College students are likely to face many challenges on their journey to achieving an academic degree. But, for a student who also struggles with mental illness, these challenges are multiplied and often seem insurmountable.
One such student is Pang-Yen "Ben" H., a consumer with SERV Centers of New Jersey Central Region for nearly seven years. After 17 years of attempting a higher education and being sidelined by his illness of schizophrenia, Ben earned a bachelor's degree at the age of 34 from Rutgers University in June 2012.
"The road to success was not easy for Ben," says SERV Residential Program Manager Matthew Liebl. "He was confronted with many challenges that he needed to work through in order to succeed. Ben's will and determination proved to conquer those obstacles."
First, Ben needed to find financial support to pursue his goal. At the encouragement of a SERV counselor, Ben applied for and, over five years, received six scholarships from The SERV Foundation, a nonprofit company of SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. The Scholarship Fund is supported by donations from SERV supporters, grant money and annual fundraisers.
"In the beginning (of going back to school), it was a struggle," says Ben. "I passed the first class and then had confidence to continue." But, he says, "I was worried about another (mental health) crisis. SERV counselors tried to reassure me to stay on course with treatment and helped me work through my anxieties. It was a trying time that I worked through one day at a time."
Focusing on his school work was a challenge, he says. "There were nights I had to finish papers but I was stuck in my head. I could talk to somebody at SERV and then I could focus."
Ben took one class a semester and eventually worked up to two classes a semester.
In May 2012, Ben finished his course work with a 2.9 GPA and earned the honor of participating in Rutgers' commencement ceremonies. His parents and younger sister watched with pride as he walked in his cherry red gown and mortarboard to pick up his diploma in English and Chinese language.
Ben says his struggle with mental illness began when he was in his teens.
He grew up in Taiwan and at age 10 moved to the USA with his parents to live in New Jersey.
In high school, Ben began to experience the first signs of what later was diagnosed as schizophrenia. "I had lots of paranoia, was isolating a lot, and having confrontations with my family. It was intense and anxiety provoking. I had hoped it was just a phase," he says. Ben began to see the school psychologist, but resisted seeing other professionals.
He had his first crisis in freshman year of college at New York University where he studied film. "I had trouble adjusting to the course load and being on my own," he says. "My isolation made me ill-prepared for college."
Ben tried to manage his depression, paranoia and suicidal thoughts on his own, using prayer as a means to work through his issues. It helped for a while, he says, and his symptoms went into remission. "But, I was not dealing with the root causes (of my issues) and (the symptoms) came back years later."
Ben dropped out of NYU and moved back home. At 19, he entered Middlesex County Community College (NJ) where he majored in liberal arts and received high grades. Because his parents paid for off-campus housing, he had more independence and a better social life through activities such as Italian Club and operas.
While some symptoms were "dormant," he still felt anger and sadness. Still, he managed to achieve a 3.0 GPA and graduate with an associate's degree in liberal arts.
At 24, Ben entered Rutgers University to study Italian and spent a summer abroad in Urbino, Italy. When he returned, he switched his major to English and lived off-campus with a friend.
Ben said suicidal thoughts and more layers of anger and sadness returned and "it was too much for me to know what to do with. Prayer wasn't enough. I still was not addressing the source of my anger."
A psychiatrist at Rutgers recommended hospitalization and he went voluntarily to University Behavioral Healthcare, a division of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of N.J. He also withdrew from school.
Ben received medication and started attending a day program for group therapy. He tried to return to Rutgers twice, but was unsuccessful. "I was not stable enough to finish and it caused a lot of frustration."
Finally, a counselor with Intensive Family Support Services of Middlesex County recommended SERV. Ben entered SERV in 2006 at the age of 28 and moved into a supervised apartment, which he shares with another consumer.
At SERV, Ben diligently took his medicine and began working on his root childhood issues with a therapist. "I was reaching stability and finally able to focus on school again," he says.
Ben's SERV counselor encouraged him to apply for a SERV Foundation scholarship so he could finish his final 18 credits. Because of the Foundation's financial support, Ben was able to see his educational goals to fruition.
And for emotional support, Ben says he owes a debt of gratitude to his parents for seeing him through his struggles with mental illness and backing him throughout.
"It was my accomplishment, but I couldn't have done it without my parents," he said. "In the beginning (of my symptoms), I tried to avoid going in the hospital and my parents helped me through that period. They were always supportive and I started to rethink my relationship with them. (Their love) is a love I can accept."
Now that Ben has graduated, he has more time to attend his day program weekdays at University Behavioral Healthcare, where he participates in group therapy and activities such as yoga and arts and crafts. He also enjoys the theater, movies and watching sports on television, particularly football and basketball.
Though Ben now has a framed diploma hanging on his wall, he has a couple more goals up his sleeve. First, Ben, who speaks fluent Mandarin, would like to find work as a translator. "I want to enter the workforce full time, but it's a big leap. I feel afraid to make that leap, but I have to work through it," he says.
And second? "I want to learn to be independent, even from SERV."
Ben's counselor, Matthew Liebl, has no doubt that Ben will achieve these new goals. "Whether Ben knows it or not, his achievement helps break down some of the stigma associated with mental illness and inspires understanding outside the mental health community," he says. "As Ben progresses through his life, his story will continue to foster hope, motivation and inspiration in individuals who suffer from mental illness."