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Helping out with mental health

“Why can’t it just let go?”

As her gaze traced the diamond pattern of the carpet, I pieced together the hints that had accumulated over the past months pointing to what she would soon articulate. I began to understand the meaning behind her use of the word “it” and what this amorphous concept had to do with the desperation and hopelessness echoing in her voice. “It” had a very clear clinical name, I realized; “it” was her depression.

It’s too easy in conversations like this to not listen fully, to fall prey to the tendency of writing off a friend’s mood as a blip in an otherwise stable condition, something that he’ll “get over.” It’s true that in a high pressure, fast-paced environment such as Princeton, stress manifests itself in a variety of ways, and sometimes declarations of despair stem solely from more temporary conditions.

But what happens if, as in my friend’s case, such anguish isn’t a fleeting occurrence?

Mental illness isn’t uncommon here. According to the 2012 Committee on Background and Opportunity report conducted by the USG, 49.9 percent of Princeton women and 37.06 percent of men reported feeling depressed “sometimes or often.” And these are just the statistics pertaining to depression. The term “mental illness” covers a large swath of issues, too many for a person not to know someone affected by it personally. Furthermore, mental illness isn’t something that can be dismissed or ignored into oblivion. It is a pervasive condition that is all too often wrongly cast as something that detracts from the strength of the sufferer. Although much has been said on this topic, much still needs to be done, both in and out of the scope of the Orange Bubble.

There’s no denying that the University invests quite a few resources in students’ well-being, and no one can question the qualifications and dedication of all the members of the team at McCosh Health Center or of Peer Health Advisers. But it’s not enough.

My friend had long suffered from a wide range of mental health issues, but the most pressing when she spoke to me was her depression. Before Intersession, she took the step all of us urged her to take; namely, to seek help from a professional. We simply couldn’t pull her out of what she described as a vortex, and we hoped that a trained psychologist or psychiatrist could.

In a time when it was increasingly difficult for her to engage with others and with her many passions, however, she was forced to wait a week and a half for a consultation. Once she received one, she spent an hour running through the major relationships in her life, her history of mental illness, her family’s history. The process, she said, was exhausting and demoralizing. She sought help and, instead, to use her words, had to go through a “laundry list” of her secrets.

There are logical reasons behind all of this, of course. There are only so many hours in a day to care for the multitude of students seeking counseling; for the most effective treatment one has to understand context. There are also therapists on call should a student consider seriously harming himself. But my friend’s experience, I think, speaks to larger issues within the University’s interactions with mental illness.

One obvious way in which the administration could help the situation would simply be to employ a greater number of professionals to expedite the process of getting that initial help, particularly for those like my friend, who occupy the gray area between complete panic or despair and a lesser, but no less real, degree of urgency. I acknowledge that wait times vary between individuals, but if even one student has to wait a length of time that could potentially be detrimental to his mental health, the system is not working as it should. As this solution of hiring more therapists is perhaps impractical, Counseling and Psychological Services could at least expedite the process for seeking help. There’s no way to replace the necessary iteration of one’s past, but part of what makes that part so unbearable is the fact that it comes after said waiting period. Why can students not complete a form with such questions prior to the first session? Simple measures could go a long way.

Though the University must work to improve the system, I urge students to not leave all the reform up to Princeton. Perhaps members of various student groups on campus could work to spread awareness of hotlines specifically geared toward individuals such as my friend, for sometimes sufferers don’t want to “burden” those close to them and need that anonymous, objective third party to offer insight or compassion. The institution of PHAs likely stemmed from such a need, but they deal with such a wide range of issues for such a large volume of students, that a new group dedicated solely to mental health is in order. In any case, however, I implore you all to listen, to read beyond ambiguous “it”s and to help a friend overcome or cope with mental illness.

Kelly Hatfield is a freshman from Medford, Mass. She can be reached at kellych@princeton.edu.

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