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.
[Content note: depression]
In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.
I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.
I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.
But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.
I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.
That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.
I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.
Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.
There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.
So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.
I mentioned the C’s on the tests.
My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”
She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.
But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.
I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.
I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.
The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.
My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.
It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.
I was twelve years old.
After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.
In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.
The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.
It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.
But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.
They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.
I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.
What was under it was terrible.
Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.
Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.
The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.
Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.
The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.
You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”
Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.
The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.
What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?
Lots of frustration.
When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.
But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.
Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)
I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.
If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.
But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.
For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.
Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.
So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.
And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.
But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.