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On fear and CPS

As a columnist for The Daily Princetonian, I pay more attention than most to these pages. Knowing that, and having heard the horror stories over the last month regarding Counseling and Psychological Services and the administration’s treatment of mental health, you might be surprised at where I was last Tuesday morning. But then, it should not be surprising to find any given Princeton undergrad in the CPS waiting room, especially this time of year. Despite the newly blue skies and the flowers spring brings, moods grow darker as thesis deadlines, final assignments and summer changes approach. I was not the only student in the silent waiting room.

I sought counseling for a specific problem: For months, I’ve struggled to prevent myself from wasting incredible amounts of time online. You’re probably thinking what I thought: “Oh, that’s something everyone does, you’ll figure out how to manage it.” And for a while I did. I couldn’t stop myself, whether through willpower or artificial restrictions, and I was irreparably damaging my ability to focus and engage with my friends after sleepless nights. I could not face this alone, so I sought and received help.

I was not concerned some administrator would declare my browsing dangerous and force me to withdraw. But I feared the negative press surrounding CPS. Because there’s no stigma associated with compulsive internet use, I can speak openly about it in CPS and in this column. But imagine struggling with depression. Here, the pressure to think “everyone feels down sometimes, you’ll figure out how to manage it” is combined with a justifiable fear of the administrative consequences of a visit to CPS Students have begun to fear the third floor of McCosh Health Center for reasons beyond the difficulty of admitting they need help — a task hard enough for the high-achieving and independent students here.

A few days later, I met Dr. Calvin Chin, the new director of CPS, at a dinner discussion sponsored by the Asian-American Students Association on why Asian and Asian-American students seek mental health care in far smaller numbers. We talked about the importance of de-stigmatizing mental health care by talking about it with the community — whether it be the Asian-American community we were addressing in particular, or smaller communities such as teams, eating clubs or academic departments. But more than community, we need reassurance from those in whom we confide.

To CPS and administration: We want to trust you. I truly believe that every administrator has students’ best interests at heart, but we are adults and deserve to be treated as such. This means making it absolutely clear when and to what extent confidentiality may be breached. This needs to be clear from the moment students enter CPS, when students make the decision to withdraw, and throughout any readmission process. It cannot be limited to general “release of medical information” — we deserve to know exactly what information will be shared, or we will live in fear of discussing anything. Frank communication between off-campus and on-campus mental health professionals is indisputably necessary for care, and it is inexcusable that any student should be scared of speaking openly with a mental health professional.

To students: If you have been to CPS, like 19 percent of students in a given year and double that in their four years, please discuss it with your friends. It is imperative that we have frank conversations regarding the full spectrum of experiences at CPS, from the professional and empathetic care that many have received to the unacceptable experiences of a few students. Cameron Langford wrote two weeks ago how helpful this discourse can be in helping ourselves and those close to us seek needed help, but a culture of conversation about CPS is also the first step to finding and fixing broken norms and practices. Be honest even about your daily stress level: Bragging about all-nighters and facing stress with a fake smile encourage deception and discourage others from reaching out with serious problems.

If you haven’t been to CPS, do not be afraid of seeking help. “It pains me,” Dr. Chin said, “that people don’t think they can come in because they’re going to be kicked out!” That anyone should be afraid to find help is the worst outcome of this all. Every member of CPS is there to help you, the student.

To pre-frosh here for Preview: These problems plague all institutions, to some extent. Whether you choose Princeton or elsewhere, strive for strong and mutually supportive friendships in your first months away from home. Utilize all your avenues for support — friends, family and medical — and strengthen them through open discussion and willingness to grapple with unjust stigmas or policies.

Students have aired their concerns, and Dr. Chin and others have stated they are open for discussion. We can fix this, but only when administrators do sincere work to restore trust in CPS and students meet these efforts with a willingness to seek help and openness about their experiences afterwards. Dr. Chin noted that 12 percent of college students nationally will engage in self-harm. More will suffer depression, intolerable stress and all manner of other ailments. As long as even one of them fears seeking help from University resources we, as a community, have failed them.

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu.

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