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All in your head

The first time I go to Counseling and Psychological Services, I attempt to check in downstairs at the familiar University Health Services front desk, where in a snotty midwinter haze, I have been several times before. It isn’t until I lower my voice to clarify that I am here for a consultation with a counselor that they send me to the third floor. I think I detect a mournful tone in the receptionist’s voice. I decide it’s all in my head.

Upstairs, I discover that the comfortable CPS waiting room operates by different social rules than the folding chairs outside UHS. On the first floor, where the signs of your ailment are made visible by an ankle brace or a clutched tissue, conversation flows naturally, self-deprecatingly. But the third floor is hushed, tomblike. I learn the rules quickly and by example: sit quietly, swipe open your smartphone, don’t smile if you recognize an acquaintance from precept or even a friend. Later, when I see a friend who had also been in the waiting room that afternoon, scrawling personal information on clinical forms, we do not mention our encounter.

Mental healthcare on college campuses became a hot topic this January, when a Yale student wrote an article detailing her allegedly forced withdrawal after revealing her suicide attempt to Yale’s counseling services. And several columnists have written this year on the value of destigmatizing mental health problems at Princeton. It seems that college students, and Princeton students in particular, like the idea of a university culture that extends a hand to those in need — and that we react strongly when those most in need are pushed away, like the Princeton student revealed last month to have allegedly been forced to withdraw following his suicide attempt.

It’s important that Princeton as an institution provides resources for those students experiencing severe mental distress. Yet I worry that there is still a perception on campus that CPS is only for those who are so depressed they want to harm themselves or can’t get out of bed. With this mentality, we brand those who seek treatment as the proverbial other, as a group whose day-to-day lives at Princeton look nothing like ours. To go to CPS thus comes to feel like admitting to something much more serious than run-of-the-mill stress.

And so, for those not suffering from diagnosed mental illness, feelings of inadequacy or anxiety are often compartmentalized as just another thing to deal with — a regrettable but inevitable aspect of Princeton life. We’ll talk willingly — sometimes almost giddily, as if having the most miserable week ahead were some kind of college accomplishment — about being busy or stressed. But often we have a hard time admitting that sometimes these feelings go deeper than doing poorly on a single assignment or feeling “off” for a day; they clutch onto a deeper sense of who we are, a worry that we’re failing in all senses. Or at least they have the potential to, if let untreated.

Mental health, like physical health, requires some amount of preventative care. Symptoms of much more serious issues manifest themselves in smaller ways earlier on. Most of what I’ve talked about at CPS hasn’t been the big stuff. It’s been about the creeping feelings of anxiety I get about speaking in precept, the challenges of dealing with a heavy drinking culture, the sadness of watching friends prepare to graduate. But paradoxically, the only way I have been able to prevent these little things from becoming Big Things is by carving out a time in my schedule to give them weight, to talk about them with someone whose entire job is to talk about these kinds of things. After all, it’s easier to treat the mental sniffles than full-blown bronchitis.

Like its first-floor counterpart, of course, CPS is not a panacea. More than one friend has confessed to me that they found CPS off-puttingly cold — a side effect, no doubt, of the long waits for appointments and the diversity of therapists’ personality types. I was lucky in that I clicked with the first doctor I saw. But I think it’s worth giving CPS another shot (or two) even if your first time isn’t so pleasant.

More importantly, though, it’s worth talking about your experience afterward, good or bad. This has the potential both to improve care at CPS and, more crucially, to improve access by letting fellow students know they’re not alone.

If, like I was, you’re waiting for someone to tell you that it’s okay to go to CPS just because you feel like your workload is too much, like you’re letting yourself down by getting a middling exam grade, like every once in a while you’re just tired of caring so damn much: It’s okay. And if you want to talk about it afterward, don’t be afraid to tell a friend. You might just find that they’ve been, too.

Cameron Langford is a politics major from Davidson, N.C. She can be reached at cplangfo@princeton.edu.

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