Column | March 5
Monday marked the beginning of Mental Health Week, a USG-sponsored initiative that seeks to “increase awareness of mental wellness by connecting students with information about campus resources, reduce the stigma regarding seeking help and start and maintain a positive dialogue that is crucial to a safe and supporting community.” Through their various events, which range from talks and workshops to recreational activities, the Princeton Mental Health Initiative raises awareness about mental health issues on campus, invites students to foster an environment conducive to open dialogue and provides strategies for students to nurture their own mental well-being.
However, the challenge lies not only in raising awareness about ways to improve mental wellness but also about changing the mindset of students in regard to these services. On Tuesday, The Daily Princetonian published an Editorial titled “Transparency regarding mental health forced withdrawals.” Raising concerns about students who may hesitate or refrain from seeking help out of fear, the Editorial Board called for increased transparency on the conditions under which the University requires students with mental health issues to leave campus.
Efforts to raise awareness about how students may go about seeking to improve their mental wellness can only do so much when students are afraid to utilize such services. It is difficult to encourage students to seek help when there are concerns, substantiated or not, about the negative consequences for doing so.
Worse still, students are wary of not only seeking help through the various groups and services offered by the University but also of reaching out to their more direct community of peers and friends. Herein lies the fundamental problem: At its best, Princeton is a rigorous academic institution that encourages students to be independent and self-sufficient. At its worst, it creates a stifling, competitive environment wherein students feel that they must always put their best foot forward — that everyone else appears to be doing just fine, and so they must also appear to be fine.
A cartoon by Adam Mastroianni, published back in December, was particular striking. Two stick figures list off the day-to-day struggles students face but change tones instantly when an admitted student asks about attending Princeton. We seem to dismiss our insecurities and complaints as unimportant or at least as less important than the fact that we should be grateful to have the opportunities we have here at Princeton. Princeton is great — we worked really hard to get in — and we work harder still to succeed here. To feel out of place is to have failed; to look insecure is to look weak.
When we do bring ourselves to acknowledge that we feel lonely, anxious, insecure, depressed or just incredibly down, it seems like no one is there to listen. Sometimes, this is the case; a friend you reach out to is too bogged down in her own work and commitments to offer much support or comfort. She takes a minute to shoot you a short, “Aw, it’ll get better! I’m here for you!” and quickly turns back to whatever task is at hand. We are reminded yet again that our peers are busy achieving the great and worthwhile. We decide we should stop pestering others with our problems — that we should be using that time to also be achieving the great and worthwhile.
However, it may just be that our peers aren’t sure what the best response is or how they can help because they themselves are struggling with the same problems. We tell our friends that it’ll get better because we ourselves are hoping that it’s true. It is sometimes just as scary for the friend being reached out to as it is for the one reaching out to discuss insecurities and struggles because we are so accustomed to keeping our issues to ourselves.
Many of the events sponsored by the Princeton Mental Health Initiative during Mental Health Week are centered on the self — how to share your thoughts, overcome your inner critic, be mindful, sleep better, reduce stress. Granted, a fundamental part of mental wellness is being able to monitor and take care of oneself. However, before we can seek to change individuals, we must work toward fostering an environment and community that is conducive for individual mental well-being.
Mental Health Week should provide more opportunities for honest and heartfelt dialogue among students. Brave students who volunteer to share their stories and struggles will have an infinitely greater impact on changing the mindset of students than professionals or representatives of services offered by the school.
I would also suggest Mental Health Week include a workshop for the leaders of student-run organizations and groups on campus that would teach them how to foster support systems. Personally, some of the people I feel closest to and most supported by are the people on my dance team. Though our official purpose is to perform and compete, unofficially we are a tight-knit group of friends. If we encourage all student groups on campus to adopt a similar spirit of camaraderie and teach them how to create open and inclusive spaces, then I think we would find that more students feel that they have a place here at Princeton — that there are people they can rely on for support.
Mental Health Week focuses a great deal on self-improvement, but we should remember that mental health issues aren’t something we have to face alone. To forget this would be unfair to ourselves and to the people we choose to surround ourselves with. It may seem like people have tough skin or have more important things to do, but that barrier is only skin deep. Everyone has insecurities, and we shouldn’t feel compelled to go about our lives pretending that we don’t.
Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.