As of late, there have been a lot of conversations and organizing efforts on campus to discuss mental health. Awareness and advocacy are important, especially when we are in dire need of more mental health resources for students. As someone that currently utilizes these resources on campus, I am thankful for all the organizing efforts that students have made to highlight this issue. However, the biggest change that needs to happen is how each of us conceptualize and discuss mental health/mental illness.
Last week, the New U opinion section ran two articles about mental health on college campuses. Both, to a certain extent, discussed the importance of resources for students. One of the articles “College Stresses Render Need for Mental Health Resources on Campus” focused on how academic stress can impact mental health. I am sure the author of the article had good intentions but it is very clear that the argument was lacking a real understanding of mental illness.
The article opens with the following statement: “The pressure of the ‘perfect’ GPA has consumed the minds and quite literally taken the lives of many.” While the impact of academic stress has a very serious impact on some college students, it is important to understand that simply attributing suicide to “the pressure of the ‘perfect’ GPA” is a harmful assumption. I understand the inclination to demystify suicide rates at universities, but our line of thinking needs to go beyond “stress” when we discuss mental health.
Even more troubling is the part in the article where the author suggests options to students that do not utilize the on campus mental health resources. “However, for those students who may be too shy to seek counseling, they are fortunate enough to have a park on campus, along with therapy dogs around the libraries during testing weeks, the Anteater Recreation Center and the beach located only a short distance away; all to help students blow off some steam anytime they feel stressed.”
Again, I know this was well intentioned. I appreciate the effort to provide helpful advice to students in need of mental health care, but this is exactly the kind of rhetoric that needs to be challenged. Implying that someone is “too shy” to seek counseling grossly trivializes the amount of anxiety, fear and stigma that many people struggle to overcome when seeking treatment. In fact, attributing this to “shyness” perpetuates stigma.
I understand that the author was trying to provide options for coping mechanisms, but these are not solutions. This issue is not about “blowing off some steam,” this is about how mental illness can challenge our very existence. Doing those things are NOT easy for everyone and while those options can be positive and healing, the author does not recognize that many mental illnesses prevent people from engaging in positive coping mechanisms.
It is very easy for someone that does not suffer from depression to say “cheer up.” It is very easy for someone who has never experienced dissociation in their lives to say “of course this is real, I’m looking right at you.” It’s easy for someone that does not battle with anxiety to say “don’t worry about it.” Even if these comments come from a place of compassion, this kind of language is dismissive and discouraging.
If someone tries opening up to you about their struggle with mental illness, please be aware of how your response can impact them. If you are not sure of how to respond, listen to them and try to validate their experience. Sometimes it seems like it’s good to say things like “we all get sad sometimes,” but that does not help.
Many of us are guilty of engaging in approaching mental illness with this kind of overly simplified attitude. But this is why we have to challenge ourselves to rethink the way we conceptualize mental health. How we discuss these issues are instrumental in perpetuating our combating stigma. The impact of our words can be damaging, regardless of intention.
Sarah S. Menendez is a fourth-year literary journalism and political science double major. She can be reached at email@example.com.