Illustrated by Zelalem Waritu.

Invalidating, Victim-Shaming and Inadequate: Students Speak of Harmful Experiences With NYUAD Counselors

“My experience with NYUAD counselors tells me that they put in a façade that they care and are listening and they do listen, but they offer no comfort or proper advice and help.”

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and trauma.
Aleksandrina Dimova, Class of 2021, first sought counseling from the Health Center in November 2020, when her entire family contracted Covid-19 and her mother was hospitalized.
“I was experiencing a lot of anxiety, sadness and I was unable to concentrate and keep up with academics, I was also having trouble eating and sleeping,” she shared. “It seemed like my mother was likely to pass away and I even had to say goodbye to her over a video call, which was extremely traumatizing.”
While she was quickly able to book a counseling session, she found the actual experience “beyond disappointing.”
According to Dimova, the counselor was dismissive of her feelings and did not acknowledge the extreme levels of sadness and anxiety she was experiencing, even when she explained that these feelings were interfering with her day to day functioning.
“They told me to take longer breaks between classes and to make lists of what I have to do during the day, which was absolutely useless advice. They told me to observe my thoughts and to try breathing exercises, which were two things I was already doing,” she explained.
She expressed that the advice, which consisted of standard counseling responses, was inadequate and, at times, even inappropriate.
“They compared my anxiety caused by my mother lying on what was likely her deathbed alone in a hospital in Bulgaria to their anxiety from public speaking that they used to experience. [This] made things worse for me because I felt absolutely invalidated. Throughout the conversation, they also tried to [make] claims hinting that we are all going to die one day, although these were not their exact words … they were making very ineffective attempts to make me accept that I will lose my mother,” Dimova shared.
She added that she left the session feeling worse than before and has not since met with a counselor at the Health Center, especially given that she had heard from peers that the other counselors exhibited similarly dismissive attitudes.
“As a result [of] a series of traumatic personal experiences, most of them caused by the pandemic, I [now] have two psychiatric diagnoses and am taking five types of medications and [consequently] I am struggling with academics for the first time,” she added.
Aiya Akilzhanova, Class of 2022, expressed concerns similar to Dimova’s regarding her first counseling experience at the Health Center. She first booked a counseling session in fall 2020, following years of dealing with anxiety related issues and was met with advice she felt was misplaced.
Akilzhanova shared that while she felt listened to, the questions she was asked and the advice she was given were too general and did not take her specific situation into account.
“The advice that [the counselor] gave me was to breathe ... I guess that probably works for some people and for certain problems, but I'm not sure if it was even … right to suggest … breathing in my situation,” shared Akilzhanova. Moreover, she was promised that she would be sent a PDF file of breathing exercises by email following the session, but did not receive it until about 10 days later.
Megan Binnis Davalos, Class of 2023, first attended a Health Center counseling session in early 2020, seeking support for urgent mental health difficulties.
“What I got instead was someone who kept pushing me to talk about things I clearly was not comfortable with talking about yet, with the promises of starting Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and no follow up due to Covid,” she shared.
Though her case was marked urgent, no one followed up with her after the session.
“My experience with NYUAD counselors tells me that they put in a façade that they care and are listening and they do listen, but they offer no comfort or proper advice and help,” she added.
Binnis Davalos shared that she had also had an unsatisfactory experience reaching out to a counselor with the purpose of getting a referral for an ADHD test at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology. Though the counselor was aware that she had been dealing with other mental illnesses unrelated to ADHD, they did not discuss them or follow up with her. When she eventually met with an ACPN psychiatrist for ADHD medication, she was told that the counselor should have prioritized the other mental illnesses over ADHD and referred her to the psychiatrist for those.
Some students even reported experiencing victim-shaming in the aftermath of experiences of sexual harm.
Laura Assanmal, Class of 2021, described a traumatic experience with an NYUAD counselor following a sexual assault experience that took place during a fall break trip abroad in 2019.
“I was shattered, experiencing the worst of the physical manifestations of the trauma and the first thing I thought I would do is reach out to a counselor at the Health Center,” she shared. “I couldn't sleep, I couldn't work and kept thinking it was my fault … Within 15 minutes of telling the counselor about my experience, they asked me to think of ways I could do better next time to take better care of myself in intimate situations and prevent situations like these and asked me to think about the “types of men I chose to be with.””
“While I was slightly validated and heard the typical phrases “You didn't deserve that” and "I'm sorry that happened to you", the emphasis on how I could improve my behavior “going forward”, so quickly after I shared what happened to me, made me feel shamed and like it was my fault that I faced that violence in the first place … I wasn't even offered the tools to handle my triggers and day to day difficulties,” Assanmal explained, adding that while she was given the opportunity to inform NYU Title IX Coordinator Mary Signor of the incident at the time, she felt too emotionally drained to do so.
Binnis Davalos added that another concern is the fear among students that they may be forced to take a leave of absence.
Anonymous statements from a former student from the Class of 2020 reiterated Binnis Davalos’ sentiments and expressed that these concerns remain unaddressed since 2016.
“In 2016, concerns were brought up … that students who reported suicidal behavior would be forced to take a [Leave of Absence], even if they had situations back in their home countries that meant that remaining on campus and having access to medical care in the UAE would be the better choice for them,” they shared.
Vedrana Mladina, Associate Director of Counseling and Wellness Counselor at the Health Center, stated that students can provide feedback on their counseling experiences through a confidential and anonymous survey that is distributed twice a semester among those who have used counseling services. There are, however, concerns surrounding how frequently the form is distributed and with students being unable to report feedback in retrospect after the end of the semester or regarding a counselor they were no longer seeing. NYU also provides resources for students to provide feedback for Health and Wellness, including counselling. These patient advocacy resources include an email where students can report their experiences.
After noticing multiple experiences with students reporting harmful experiences via online fora, Emília Vieira Branco, Class of 2023, decided to create a Google form to compile feedback about counseling services. She believes there is a communication gap between students and the Health Center and last week discussed the feedback she received with the Medical Director of the Health Center, Dr. Ayaz Virji.
She also emphasized that students sharing their counseling experiences are just looking out for others and do not intend to harm anyone or disincentivize anyone from seeking counseling. She will be meeting with the Health Center team in two weeks to reevaluate the situation surrounding counseling.
Branco also believes that too much bureaucracy is involved in being able to access insurance-covered mental health care off-campus.
“I think at many points it really restrains students from actually getting the care that they need, having to go through an immense amount of steps before being able to reach a practitioner that they need,” she explained.
Dimova pointed out that inadequate mental health support on campus, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, is an issue that extends beyond the counseling service.
“Expressing care for students’ mental health in weekly emails means nothing if it is not supported by actions that make a difference for students,” Dimova noted.
Despite the contents of this article, we encourage anyone experiencing mental health difficulties to reach out and ask for help. You can contact the NYU Wellness Exchange at +971 2-628-5555 while on the NYUAD campus and at +1 (212) 443-9999 elsewhere.
An earlier version of the article contained claims about events in 2016 that the Gazelle was unable to independently verify. The article was also updated with additional quotes from Emília Vieira Branco about her meeting with Dr. Ayaz Virji.
Naeema Mohammed Sageer is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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