Column | Dec. 2

Rethinking the puzzle of well-being

The day classes end for Thanksgiving break is a cold and rainy one, a perfect day for being alone with your thoughts. My three roommates have already left for home, and, all alone, I mull over in my mind something I’ve been putting off. After going back and forth about it, I finally decide: It’s time. I put on my boots and coat, grab an umbrella and head for my destination.

When I arrive, it appears to be all smoke and mirrors. It’s after hours, so I have to ring a doorbell. “Are you safe?” Just the question in and of itself makes me question my decision to go. I answer, “Yes,” and am given directions to go up a flight of stairs. I arrive in a white hall, decorated with pretty yet bland paintings of nature — like any proper office — and a nurse asks me to take a seat, as she is checking somebody else’s vitals. As I sit, I twiddle my thumbs, text my friend who is waiting for her flight at Newark Airport and vaguely wonder, “What am I doing here?”

I am in McCosh Health Center.

Before this visit, I had only been to McCosh twice. The first time was last October, when I felt like crap after my midterms; I was sent away with an order of Tylenol and a lot of fluids. The second was also last October, when I had to get a shot and receive a prescription before my freshman seminar trip to Costa Rica.

In both instances, I felt no sort of strange tingles or nervousness in going to McCosh, similar to what I think someone would feel for going to the center due to one too many drinks on a night out (though I cannot know this for sure). We — as in students, the University and society as a whole — know that our physical health is something that should always be looked after; carelessness in this sphere of well-being affects everything else we do in life. Though we may be embarrassed to show others that we have indeed been careless, people would, in general, much rather suffer this than allow any illness to spiral out of control entirely.

Mental health is a completely different arena.

For one, it is not emphasized nearly as much as physical health. Of course, University Health Services and the Peer Health Advisors put on their mental health screening event this year, and the meningitis scare has made putting physical health on the forefront a necessity. Still, even before all this hoopla, it always seemed like physical health came first. Moreover, one could also see mental health as the same smoke and mirrors as the entrance to McCosh. A change in mental health is not always as obvious as physical health; you can’t put your hand to someone’s forehead and say, “Hmm, I think there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.” It simply doesn’t work like that. Outward validation is more difficult to receive, and, as a result, people seek it less or treat it less importantly. And needless to say, mental health is forever being romanticized, and it is consequently treated less like an important aspect of someone’s general well-being and more like a personal self-indulgence.

Was I being self-indulgent when I finally decided I needed to talk to someone? My essential problem was going from a place of assuredness in my major, my post-grad plans and my professional hopes to what, in my mind, seemed like square one. I was spending so much time pondering and worrying about the future that I began missing out on my present. I didn’t think this was a particularly unique problem for an undergraduate before her sophomore spring, but my random moments of purposelessness were enough to worry me.

In the end, I do not regret my decision one bit. The friendly nurse, whose warm blond hair and smile offset the slight coldness of the white walls, instantly put me at ease. As it was after hours, I was put on the phone with a UHS counselor. I expected our talk to be no longer than 15 minutes. I underestimated by about 45 minutes. I felt the unexpected relief of talking to someone about how I felt, not in relation to classes or grades, but in the strict sense of my general happiness and health. I can’t say I have a sure sense of what my future holds, but I can honestly say I am much more comfortable with it now.

Many people think that to seek help, one must be in the worst mental state possible, whereas the tiniest of coughs justifies worry. Maybe this has something to do with the stigma that comes with actively caring for your mental health or fearing that others will view your concern as overreacting. But, simply put, I would much rather over-react in the present than leave my inner peace and mental health on the back burner until it’s almost snuffed out.

Lea Trusty is a sophomore from Saint Rose, La. She can reached at ltrusty@princeton.edu.

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