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Dec. 1, 2021 | Opinion
Dear President Fenves,
On World Mental Health Day this October, you sent students an email telling us you overheard a conversation between two Emory students. “I just feel so anxious now,” one of them said. Although you had well-meaning intentions, you quote them like you’ve made some revolutionary discovery, realizing for the first time that students aren’t actually the constantly smiling pictures on Emory’s admissions brochures.
So, as an opinion editor, I couldn’t help it but try to make your story hit a little harder. Here are a couple quotes I’ve also overheard in the last 20 days that I recommend using to strengthen your argument.
“I lost 12 pounds because I was so stressed about midterms.”
“I literally went to sleep at four last night, and I never go to sleep that early.”
“I haven’t walked home this early (1 a.m.) in more than three weeks.”
“Yeah, I took a mental health week from this class.” The guy sitting next to her responded, “You were literally gone for a month.”
I understood your sentiment, standing in solidarity as a once-college student. But as students, we don’t want someone to say it’s powerful to know how to eloquently express we’re lonely and in pain. The system needs change.
My best friend committed suicide last December. I write this for him, for the so-called “best years of his life” that he didn’t get to have because our fucked-up system failed him. I write this for everyone who has suffered from mental health issues and for one reason or another, weren’t able to get the help they needed — I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through.
I write this with one thing in mind, that hiring more therapists and counselors to treat young adults is only temporary. While lack of accessibility for these resources is part of the issue, advertising raffles for free iPads doesn’t encourage more people to sign up and use TimelyMD, Emory’s new virtual mental health service. It’s taking the easy way out and a cruel commodification of mental health. But something in the fabric of our culture and our society is failing and in desperate need of change.
Maybe we’re just too afraid to admit that fixing these problems means upending what we already know. Maybe it’s our belief in the failed meritocracy, a veneer to pretend that we care more about honest academic success than prestige and wealth.
Unfortunately, the higher education system feeds into its pretentiousness and creates a mental health crisis where college students report more anxiety than psychiatric patients in the 1950s. The college experience has fostered an environment where anxiety, depression and stress are the norm. As students, we compete in a cruel game of who can get the least amount of sleep, skip the most meals and still somehow attend class, do extracurriculars, get good grades and be a socially functioning college student.
How much sleep did you get last night? Six hours? I got four. Yeah, well I didn’t sleep. As I write, I can’t stop myself from chuckling just a little bit. Glamourizing the extent to which we can torture our bodies is not the purpose of college. It’s pathetic that we’re all chasing after the award to be “the most unwell person” and wear it like a badge of honor.
Being able to fill up the “accomplishments” section of your resumé with a list of mental health issues that you’ve faced does not make you successful, nor is it indicative of how well you’re doing in school. Students shouldn’t feel guilty for sleeping at 1:30 a.m. because it’s two hours earlier than usual, yet it is impossible to escape from this culture. We live under the expectation that college students are meant to be mentally unstable, incredibly overworked and sleep deprived. “If you’re not stressed,” said Emily Ogden (21Ox, 23C), “you’re not working hard enough.”
“Being sick at college is the worst,” my friend Isha, who goes to Brown University (R.I.), complained to me over the phone. When she called, I was wrapped up in three blankets, surrounded by a box of tissues and feeling like I was just run over by a bus. Within a couple of days, not only did all my friends end up sick, but my classes were also filled with sniffling and coughing.
Despite the constant hacking, people still show up to class out of fear of neglecting their grades. On the Friday before Halloween, I was studying on the 7th floor of the library. I overheard a girl on the phone, presumably with her parents.
“It’s okay,” she said, “I took a lot of medicine, I went to class, but now I’m in the library trying to study.”
Our professors constantly tell us to take care of ourselves because our physical wellbeing ensures peak academic performance. Yet grading policies that fail to account for sick absences or family leaves nurtures an overachieving college culture where our mental and physical health are not a priority.
But after receiving three midterm deficiencies, where a student is in danger of failing a class, Ogden emailed one of her professors, explaining that she knew she wasn’t doing well and was worried about her success in his class. Her professor wrote back in response, “At this point, you should just drop this class.”
The transition from online school to campus has also forced students to completely readjust how they manage their time. Despite being in classes he feels he should be “breezing through,” Noah Gentry (23C) still feels overworked. “In order to get all my responsibilities done, I have to neglect doing my laundry, cleaning my house … in a lot of cases, forgoing sleep,” Gentry said.
Some professors have been cognizant of this shift, like Professor of Psychology Andrew Kazama, who threw out all his exams in light of the pandemic. While Kazama values student mental health above all, he also focuses squarely on the students’ responsibility to recalibrate their expectations: that self-worth should not be determined by grades. Simply asking students to know that “pressure is a privilege” or to stop feeling pressure of attending an elite university is laughable. When the structure of our campus culture is so flawed, that is easier said than done.
“Did you know that we’re the fourth most depressed university in the U.S.?” It’s the perfect conversation starter with your friend who just pulled yet another all-nighter studying for their QTM 100 midterm. Whether that fact is true or not no longer matters. What’s more concerning is the number of times people reference it as the punchline to a joke.
Today, becoming highly anxious and moderately depressed is a rite of passage for newly minted adults as they enter college. We so casually link arms with death, to the point where trying to figure out the difference between people saying “I want to kill myself” and a true cry for help is frighteningly impossible.
It’s worth reflecting on the drastic evolution in higher education since the 1960s, when college was marked more by enjoying high culture and fighting for social justice rather than obsessing over career opportunities and grades. An increasing demand for higher education leads to more competition, breeding a community that sees each other as a hurdle to jump over to make it to the top.
Students navigate not only the new challenges of financial insecurity, college debt and rigorous job competition, but must also balance a healthy social life. Between 70-80% of students also work while going to school – nearly half of them for more than 30 hours a week – likely causing their academics and mental health to suffer greatly. There is only so much time in the day, but trying to toe the ever-thinning line of academics, work and social life is proving to be a daunting task.
I always love finding that section in our syllabi on stress and mental health, when professors ask us to reach out when we need help. To me it reads, “Hey y’all, I’m sorry you’re stressed, but here are some Saturday night deadlines and some unavailable mental health resources.” I can’t blame them, of course. They’re doing their best to solve a nearly unsolvable societal problem but sometimes I can’t help but want a scapegoat to carry all my distress.
I find it funny sometimes, watching my seminar classes of 42 people on the first day dwindle down to the same seven people who continue to show up for the rest of the semester. While it is a student’s responsibility to take ownership of their education, people don’t skip classes simply without reason. If people aren’t consistently showing up, perhaps it’s for other invisible causes that professors don’t know.
“If you’re taking a break or need an extension,” said Ogden, “it’s not about laziness but the larger question of: ‘Are you okay?’”
College “weed-out” classes, or difficult intro level courses for overpopulated majors like computer science, are designed to crush people’s enthusiasm. They deter freshmen from trying to figure out what they might be interested in and instead purposelessly make them suffer for no other reason than to eliminate students from majors and force them to pursue something else. There isn’t any real purpose to doing so, besides working as an arbitrary barrier to keep people out and away from primarily STEM subjects.
At Emory, for each credit hour of class, students are expected to work for 2-3 hours outside class as well. But is there ever a break to the monotonous hours that we spend toiling away? Midterms are a misnomer; they tend to last unofficially from the second week of school to the two weeks before finals. But is all the hard work and effort we put into school going to correspond to how successful our future will be when we graduate?
There are so many qualified students on the job market that holding an officer position in every club while maintaining a full course load with a 3.9 GPA will not guarantee you success. Despite all that, you still might not get the job you want.
Professors often assign a lot of homework – from readings to writing essays, sometimes I wonder what the purpose really is when I’m not explicitly told. In a conversation with a friend, I admitted to not having done a single reading since the beginning of class and passed down some sophomoric wisdom. Figure out the assignments that are worthwhile and only do those, anything else is a waste of time.
“I’ve learned that it’s the only way to get things done,” I texted him. As soon as I sent it, I realized that my professors were not entirely to blame for busy work or meaningless assignments. Instead of genuinely engaging in the material, I decided that the utility of assignments, whether they were graded or not or when they were due, would ultimately determine my effort.
It’s pitiful how college is a formula that we’re all trying to master in our own way. One of my fondest memories of high school was when I sprawled on the floor of the library, making up a book for my AP Literature exam just to see if I could. But even on topics I’m fascinated by, like my paper on government censorship, I have lost the same sense of engagement I wish I still had.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by fall 2019, about 19.9 million students were enrolling into U.S. colleges and universities. People go into college with lofty dreams and the pressure of the future weighing on them. Unfortunately, colleges neither have the resources to help everyone nor should they be making those promises in the first place. But while universities have the onus to care for their students, it’s unfeasible to expect administrators to fulfil the roles of parents, therapists, professors and guidance counselors all at the same time.
This college mental health crisis isn’t going away soon. In fact, cases of depression and anxiety are projected to rise exponentially if we don’t make substantial changes now. But herein lies the question: what is truly responsible for this crisis? Who is responsible for helping students? Or if this system is so ingrained in our society, is it even anyone’s responsibility to solve these issues?
“You are not your grades,” Kazama, the psychology professor, told me. But in so many ways, whether we like it or not, we are. Professors rarely sit down and evaluate the character of each of their students; they enter in empirical data of tests, quizzes, homework and participation. My future employer will inevitably weed-out hopefuls by looking at their GPA and call it an assessment of whether they can handle the rigorous workload or not.
But as many students tell me themselves, they know it’s up to them to tell professors when they are struggling in class. They know that obsessing over one or two points is not reflective of the real world, but when their future goals of getting into graduate school or applying for a job is so deeply intertwined with their college GPA, every single grade boost matters.
Students are so frequently creating their own safety mats to succeed in school. Most recently, I remember my sociology professor this semester asking us if anyone needed extra credit. A ripple of chuckles washed across the classroom, and slowly, every single hand went up. I know for a fact that none of us are truly failing this class – Canvas shows us the overall average, high and low scores on each assignment. But it’s all about the extra padding, anything to ensure that if something were to happen, there would be some cushion to fall back on.
And we know it’s unhealthy too. In the week leading up to Parent’s Weekend, my friend and I noticed whiteboards spread across the second floor. “Hey undergrads,” it said, “What’s one challenge you face at Emory?”
I took pictures of each board as they were updated each day. Among them, some of my favorites include, “staying sane,” “making friends,” “work-life balance,” “not sleeping problems away,” “lonely,” “depression,” “eating three meals a day” and perhaps my all-time favorite, “hate it here.”
Students were brutally and necessarily honest.
Colleges are trying. They are making an effort to help, or at least show that they care. After all, Title IX offices, counseling services and crisis hotlines don’t pop up out of nowhere – they exist because students have demonstrated more than a prevailing need to feel safe, to feel worthy, to feel somewhat in control in this world.
But these institutions and services are overpromising. Despite encouraging students to seek help when they need it, Emory’s Office of Respect is confusing and difficult to navigate.
Incidents of sexual harassment and violence occur frequently across college campuses and universities. Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males have experienced rape or sexual assault. However, these cases are rarely being reported out of fear of retaliation and the lack of help from the university to mitigate those issues.
I can’t definitively claim anything about the number of students with Title IX allegations under their name, nor can I be the judge of whether or not it’s true. But by simply walking to class and talking to my friends, I’ve heard enough stories to make me wonder if Emory is treating each report as seriously as it should.
“That guy,” my friend points out to me as we walk toward class, “he raped my friend. My friend reported him, but the University isn’t doing anything about it.”
So, while Emory has a comprehensive Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that includes both a department for Title IX allegations and one for Equity and Inclusion, it’s not enough to simply say that these resources exist.
Whether or not the University chooses to take disciplinary action, the impact that it has on the survivor’s mental health is immeasurable by disciplinary reports and shoddy corporate speak emails. In reality, people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and other long-term damage. At Emory in particular, the procedural definitions to filing a formal report or formal claim is never taught – nor is the process itself post-allegation made clear and easy to navigate. In fact, I didn’t even learn of these differences until after I attended the Wheel’s mandated sexual assault training at our editors’ meeting last week.
Existence doesn’t constitute action, nor should schools that talk boldly of sexual assault prevention and mental health claim they know better otherwise.
The way universities are currently run, teenagers are molded into the ideation of the perfect adult. But we’re not. Students fear failure more than ever. Learning is no longer for the sake of enjoyment but for figuring out how to cheat the system for the best grades. Instead of being driven with the purpose of enlightening young minds, universities are profit and reputation-driven, a stark reflection of an underlying issue in our society. Universities are not their own insulated bubbles. College students overwork and overcommit themselves in an effort to stand out against the crowd; dropout rates have increased since 2015 because college is too expensive and that there is a lack of support for marginalized and disadvantaged students.
In the 2020 Center for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report, it reported that of 602 colleges and universities, there are 185,440 unique students seeking treatment, 3,890 clinicians and 1,385,685 appointments. This means that each clinician would see an average of 47 students in one academic year.
Emory’s mental health resources, though comprehensive, are just like other colleges: an elaborately marketed, underfunded Ponzi scheme. The Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is notoriously known for being inaccessible, with wait times for some appointments stretching more than two weeks out from the initial phone screening. When Claire Marchand (25C) attempted to schedule an appointment, the CAPS website was blocked on Emory’s internet servers.
For Gentry, trying to schedule appointments with therapists has been a rollercoaster ride that started at the beginning of sophomore year. The first time, he called CAPS on Sept. 3, asking for help when he was suffering from severe depression. They failed to schedule him for an initial screening until Oct. 3.
The second time, when Gentry felt himself sinking back into depression, he scheduled another appointment. When the time came, he sat in front of his computer, watched the counselor enter the meeting and leave the session immediately. Shortly after, he messaged and emailed the therapist – he didn’t get a response.
Gentry said he felt better when the school year started. But when he needed another meeting, he was forced to do another initial screening. CAPS asked him to fill out some paperwork before the appointment. “You basically have to recount every bad thing that ever happened to you for 45 minutes,” Gentry said. After submitting the paperwork, Gentry waited patiently, but a link to his appointment never appeared in his email.
Now, Gentry is trying to motivate himself to call in again, believing that one day he’ll be successful. “I’m just frustrated because the quality of care when I actually get it is good.”
Similarly, after hearing from a friend who tried to use CAPS services that it took three weeks to even get an appointment, Ogden never even tried. “She was basically saying to my friend, ‘you have issues that I can’t deal with,’” Ogden said.
Consistent with these student interviews, the earliest a student can receive an initial screening is a week after their first call. If they’re lucky, students can get an appointment the week after that, but most have been unsuccessful. While there are crisis options, like the Emory Crisis Line, students often cannot receive necessary long-term help until weeks later.
“[CAPS] put [my friends] on hold for five minutes and then said they should altogether take a Buzzfeed quiz to see if they have depression,” Marchand said.
CAPS allows for up to eight counseling sessions per academic year. Though I refuse to defend the University’s mental health resources in any way, I understand their limitations.There aren’t enough therapists in the world to treat every college student and their unique struggles. This, in it of itself, begs the question: why are college students experiencing such a drastic increase in mental health issues?
I asked this same question during my interviews with students and a professor, and frankly, the answers weren’t ones I thought I would get. Perhaps it’s because people are used to speaking about their mental health and how college mental health resources have failed them. But then someone told me, “Maybe it’s because they’ve never thought about it.” People know the effect of college on mental health all too well, but they’ve never thought of why.
Like Ogden, Gentry hasn’t had any direct interactions with college administration, but it infuriates him when he sees emails advertising mental health resources on campus.
“I can tell all my friends that I’m struggling and stressed and don’t feel good, but it won’t change anything because they all are struggling and stressed and don’t feel good either – it’s not a superpower,” said Gentry. “I’m exhausted and I want therapy.”
Random emails don’t make people feel better either. “All of my friends are complaining about how bad their mental health is and how they need to go see a counselor,” he continued.
While counseling services may be helpful for many people, it’s only a temporary solution. The problems of the meritocracy, of overworked and overachieving students toward no tangible goal is still present.
In 2018, The Sunday Times labeled us “Generation Snowflake.” They called us thin-skinned, too coddled by our parents and too fragile to handle the brazen truths of the world. Sure, call us easily offended and weak. But try your hand at juggling two sports, a 40-hour job, a 17-credit course load and hanging out with friends. Try to seek help and wait hopelessly when the website to schedule a CAPS meeting is blocked on school WiFi. Wake up and wish you could just go back to sleep for the rest of your life. Wonder if the school really cares or if it just wants to churn out the most successful, most unwell students of this generation so it can brag about its award-winning scholars and raise tuition yet again. Leave college with that crumpled up resumé in your back pocket, wondering when you’ll pay off your accumulating student debt. Go through all of this, and if you still want to tell me we’re fragile and weak, that’s okay. I’ll wear that label with pride.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.