In the Brickley Center, help awaits in the name of Brad Thorne

Author: | April 24, 2016 8:46 pm

In an unassuming building on an unassuming street works an asset that ENC could not possibly do without. This campus, though tiny, hosts a powerful community connected not only by the celebrations, but by the hard times its people endure together—hard times steered through cleanly, for the most part, with a huge helping hand from one campus counselor: Brad Thorne.

If ENC was the size of a state university, its students would be far worse off, especially considering some schools’ leave of absence policies. Thorne disapproves of policies that put pressure on students already needing to seek mental health counseling. The Brickley Center Director frowned and screwed up his face when I told him about policies at other schools.

Yale, for instance, expects students considering leaves of absence to fill out at least FIVE different forms of paperwork; the Yale catalogue, Section J, states that each student on leave may do so “provided that the student departs in academic good standing at the end of a term and returns at the beginning of a term.”

Under “Medical Withdrawal,” not only do students have to petition to the director of Yale Health—or the chief of the Mental Health and Counseling department, or their “official designees within the Health Center”—they must, upon reentry, “discuss the requirements for reinstatement with the residential college dean or the chair of the Committee on Reinstatement.”

Thorne disagrees with such strict demands upon troubled students, saying that it “doesn’t sit well with him at all,” and he finds himself glad ENC’s withdrawal policy is much more lenient and student-friendly.

“I’m of the opinion that you want to make it safe for people to access help and get better,” he said, gesticulating circles with his left hand. “My feeling about [strict policies] is it could drive things further underground.”

The white noise machines outside the office doors on Brickley’s second floor provided a quiet backdrop to our conversation. Outdoor noises filtered in underneath the white noise, and the three large windows in Thorne’s office let in soft spring light. A small lamp cast an equally warm glow on the wall as I held my notepad against my leg and posed questions, a therapy patient transformed suddenly into a journalist. Foreignness creeped up on me, but Thorne’s familiar, laid-back attitude put me at ease.

After confessing to not being very talkative, he answered all of my questions with verbal paragraphs of information. When I brought up the mental health crisis colleges are facing across the nation, he agreed that something needed to be done, and that ENC has taken a step toward recognizing students’ individual needs and accommodating them not only with its leave of absence policies, but on campus as well.

As the Brickley Center Director, Thorne heads the effort to keep things in check, whether he wants to take that credit or not. He serves not only as a medium between students who struggle with mental health challenges and their professors, but also between the students and whoever they feel needs to know about their challenges. The odd part? He never thought he would work with college students.

“I had no idea I’d be here for 30 years.” Thorne laughed and shook his head. “That’s how things happen, though, you know?”

Thorne graduated from ENC in 1982 and immediately went to work on his Master’s degree in an accelerated program at Suffolk University. He only started working with college students when he took an internship at Curry College. Even after that, his next job with the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) focused more on in-home counseling and private consultations through an agency in Plymouth, Mass. In 1987, Thorne took a job at ENC unrelated to his field. Soon, though, the campus announced an opening in the Counseling and Career Services area on campus.

Before he got here, the counseling services were located in the basement of Gardner Hall. Where Thorne currently has his office used to be the school chaplain’s office, which moved when Corey MacPherson came to the campus in the early 2000s. “They did lots of moving,” Thorne agreed with me. “Now that I think about it, it doesn’t make much sense to have the chaplain’s office in Brickley instead of Angell [Hall].”

What about the leave of absence policy here at ENC? According to the student handbook, on page 41 under “Medical Withdrawal Policy,” the terms seem vague. They redirect readers to look under the registrar’s page on the website, and while that may not sound promising, the benefits outweigh any uncertainty. The leave of absence terms get tailored to each student’s individual needs determined by their professors, their counselors, and the registrar.

Thorne smiled with pride when discussing the attention serious student health problems receive when ENC comes forward to address them. The faculty, he told me, go out of their way to help students stay on track, or to help get them back on track if something goes off the proverbial rails. According to Thorne, the challenge comes when faculty must figure out how to accommodate students within the classroom setting itself.

“Sometimes it’s hard [for faculty] to determine, you know, ‘What’s okay for me to say or do in this situation?’ ” Thorne took on a serious expression and furrowed his brow a bit. “There’s that question, ‘How do I refer people to someone without just passing them on?’”

ENC’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), headed by junior Amanda Wasser, collaborates frequently with Thorne and the Brickley Center to host events raising mental health awareness on campus. Wasser herself faces the trials of clinical depression and PTSD every day.

After being diagnosed at 16, Wasser spent time in therapy and treatment before coming to ENC in 2013; stigma, misunderstanding, and fear of judgment blocked open conversation, even when she herself wished to share her own story. Two years and one NAMI chapter opening later, however, Wasser has noticed a dramatic shift in the campus attitude, especially after Thorne and the Brickley Center have gotten involved in opening the conversation.

NAMI hosts events for mental health awareness, and has a day called Wellness Wednesday, where students can take hikes in the Blue Hills or have massages done by masseuses the club brings in. Thorne involves himself in everything, making time in his busy schedule to make sure he’s there.

“He puts aside his day every day to talk to students,” Wasser said. “He’s really a valuable resource.”

Thorne has been a fixture here for 30 years and shows no interest in leaving anytime soon. Through all the advice he could give, one thing stands out: anyone who faces this challenge can make it.

“You’re not alone if you feel like you’re struggling,” he said. “Many people do. There’s a lot of hope. A lot of these things can be managed, but in the moment, it seems overwhelming.”

Thorne explained that seeking out help is “courageous and strong.” To anyone who might still believe therapy comes with a stigma, think of Amanda Wasser, who reports getting progressively better each year because of her on-campus sessions with Thorne. In the Brickley Center, help waits. His name is Brad Thorne.

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