Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.
Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.
[Content note: depression and suicide]
A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.
I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.
What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”
As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:
- Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
- 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
- Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”
This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)
It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”
I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”
We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.
So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.
Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.
These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.
This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.
A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.
First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.
Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”
Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.
And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.
Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.
And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.
An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.
If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.
If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.
Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.
“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.
“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?
“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”
And here’s what I said:
Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:
Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?
Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.
Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.
Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.
If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!
Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?
No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:
Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?
She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.
If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.
What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?
Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.
Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.
Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?
These things matter.
Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.
I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.
I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.
I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.
However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.
A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.
So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.
People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.
Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.
But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.
So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”
When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.
I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.
I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.
I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.
And not everyone I meet is a good person.
I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.
Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.
Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.
The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.
Seth returns again to talk about the response he received to his speech about depression and spirituality. (This is his third guest post. Hmm, maybe he should get a blog already!)
A few days back, I wrote a piece titled “The Dharma of Depression,” wherein I talked about the experience of depression and the way my spirituality has interacted with that. I must confess myself quite overwhelmed and flattered with the response that it’s gotten.
But I’m not here today to toot my own horn. There’s plenty of other times to talk about how awesome I am. No, the thing that’s stuck out to me about the response I’ve been getting is how many people have said that I spoke to a personal experience in their lives. By contrast, I’ve only had one person tell me that they’ve never experienced what I was talking about.
This is important.
It’s important because depression is an incredibly lonely disorder. One of the many thoughts that depressed people tend to get stuck in is the idea that they’re completely alone—maybe there are people who care, but there’s nobody out there who understands what they’re going through well enough to be able to help them. This has been my experience, and it’s also something I hear a lot from other people who talk about the experience of depression. What seemed to be happening in response to my piece, based on the comments I’ve been getting, is that having somebody describe an experience similar to the one they went through suddenly challenged this sense of isolation and opened up the possibility of somebody else being able to relate to how they felt.
What’s ironic is that even in the middle of this isolated feeling, there are many more people
than you’d expect going through a more or less similar experience. Certainly, for me, there were more people than I could’ve imagined even just among my immediate friends group who could relate to my pain. I expected two or three people in my audience to be familiar with the feelings I described; based on the number of people who have talked to me, I’d rate the actual number to be closer to fifteen or twenty, out of no more than fifty.
So. To those of you who are all too familiar with the feelings I described, I have something to say to you. And despite my usual tendency towards wordiness, I’m going to be as concise and blunt as I can, because it’s incredibly important for you to understand.
You are NOT alone.
You are NOT some kind of emotional freak.
Most importantly, you are NOT a hopeless case.
You have a problem, yes. But this problem is not unique to you. It’s not a problem that
everybody will understand, but neither is it a problem that nobody will understand. It is a problem that has been lived through. It is a problem that has been studied. It is a problem that, at this very moment, thousands of individuals are working to find a way to treat.
You can find support, and you can find help. I know there are bad breaks and well-meaning idiots out there, but if you just hold on and keep looking, you will eventually find somebody who understands what you’re going through. There are more of them out there than you think.
You can survive this.
Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.