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Princeton's mental health obligation

“So what exactly did you do on your year off?”

I always pause before answering this question. I’ve avoided giving in-depth details about my experience withdrawing from Princeton two years ago — the reasons for it, and the process it entailed — to anyone but my closest friends. But it continues to disturb me at the most visceral level to read headlines about depression, self-harm and death. As a rule, I don’t watch news stories or read articles with vivid details, knowing that doing so might trigger the debilitating anxieties and intrusive thoughts that drove me to leave campus mid semester, sobbing and utterly overwhelmed.

I’ve come a long way since then and have thankfully since returned to Princeton with the tools to manage my emotions and my obsessive, anxious mind.

The experience left me with an adamant belief that everyone should prioritize finding balance in their mental state. Just ask my friends — I’m often referred to as “the mental health lady.” But already, after a year and a half back on campus, I feel myself subtly yet profoundly sucked back into the default culture of endless striving, stressing and overcommitting. There’s something unique about this campus’s inability or unwillingness to speak the language of mental health and holistic wellness­, that to speak openly and honestly on a day-to-day basis requires a huge amount of effort. And it’s this solid silence that breeds the fear and stigma that make seeking professional help, or taking time off feel so needlessly alienating.

So if there is any power in dredging up troubling events from two years ago that I’d rather move on from, this is the moment to do so. I need to add my voice to the others, such as the anonymous contributor who bravely spoke up about their own ongoing struggles and negative experiences with the administration, and the valuable discussions between students and the University regarding withdrawal policies and mental health.

When I made the decision to voluntarily leave Princeton, I, like this contributor, felt a great sense of fear that I may not be readmitted if the University deemed me not well-enough or a liability. I feared revealing details about the strange and disturbing things happening in my thoughts, which ironically only made them worse. The dark, claustrophobic sense of shame is ideal breeding ground for disordered thinking.

But at the time, I knew so strongly that I could not cope that I needed to leave to take care of myself and become well. Luckily, I had the financial resources and family emotional support to do that. I withdrew knowing I was entering a safe environment where I would get the help I needed. Others are not so lucky.

I also remember the letter that arrived in the mail from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students about a month after I arrived home informing me I would be subject to a required evaluation by Counseling and Psychological Services before I could return. At that lowest of low moments, when I still did not have a handle on my mental state, that letter filled me with a deep sense of dread and total alienation from my friends and my life as a Princeton student. The choice to leave and take care of myself felt less like freedom than a sentence of exile. Many months later, as I handed my therapist the mandatory reevaluation form, I secretly feared that she might write something — or that the CPS evaluator would find some fault in what she wrote — that would jeopardize my readmission, even though we both knew by then that I was more than well enough to return.

As an educational institution, Princeton does not have an obligation — moral or legal — to be liable for every student’s health. But it does have a moral obligation to educate its students in how to become emotionally wise. It is no good whatsoever trying to be “in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of all Nations” if you do not know first how to help yourself.

The gifted people that Princeton selectively admits are the same people who are also most prone to depression and anxiety, especially in a high-pressure environment, and Princeton must acknowledge and help students themselves to understand this fact. Highly active and sensitive minds are praised only for their “strengths” — intellect, drive and perfectionism — while the other inevitable aspects of having such a mind — its emotional variability and tendency for extremes — are stigmatized and subtly condemned as weaknesses.

The institution needs to do some serious rethinking of how it writes and publicizes its policies, and how it spends its budget on mental health resources. It needs to more clearly recognize and communicate the limits of its ability to assume liability for students, instead of purporting to be a warm nest that will unconditionally support you for four years. It is not a healthcare facility, nor should it be, and should not be expected to fund long-term therapy. But it needs to give students the tools to learn how to be wise enough to help themselves so that they can then be of service to others.

As I wrote in a previous column, I believe this campus desperately needs an organization — along the lines of the SHARE model — that trains students in basic counseling techniques who can then serve as go-betweens between students and professionals in CPS or in private practices. This Mental Health Peers organization needs to be friendly, vocal and public from the beginning of freshman orientation until the day students graduate.

I want this conversation to continue to involve students, the administration, the CPS counselors themselves. I want to hear what the challenges they all face, and I want us to work towards an integrated solution. Princeton will always be an institution first, not a community. But among ourselves, we can create the kind of community a legal entity cannot.

These debates are important not just because they affect the health and happiness of a few thousand students while they are at the University, though that should be reason enough. These debates­ are vital because the attitudes and cultures towards mental well-being that students experience while at Princeton will come to shape their outlooks and actions later in life–towards their co-workers, their families and friends. Right now, most Princeton students leave campus with a subconscious belief that to admit vulnerability is weakness. Many will continue, after graduating, on the same unstable trajectory of over-taxing themselves and neglecting their inner lives. Some will be fine. Others will not.

An acceptance of the fact that we all need to look after our minds as well as our bodies is an attitude sorely lacking in U.S. culture generally: in workplaces, where there is discrimination against disorders such as depression, in families, and in the very education system itself, which fundamentally views students as intellectual, not emotional, beings.

Princeton, with its social and political influence, has the opportunity to become a crucial force in beginning to remedy this flawed culture. It could choose to join the slow but noble effort of companies like Google, which has instituted meditation and mindfulness practices in an effort to help employees maintain a balanced and contented mental state, or high profile individuals like Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, who published a long and highly personal piece about his struggle with anxiety, one of the nation’s most common disorders. The latter gives me hope that I am not ruining my own future career prospects by admitting that I have struggled with anxiety and depression myself.

And frankly, if a future employer stumbles across this article and does not want to hire me as a result, then it’s clearly not the right place for me. A year and a half ago, I was readmitted to Princeton, but there are others in situations similar to mine who may not be. Let’s make sure this can be the right place for them.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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