Health in mind: Keep the conversation going
Our concern is with the potential to overemphasize individual failure to the detriment of scrutinizing collective practice. That is, the common way in which we seem comfortable expressing brushes and collisions with depression, anxiety and suicide, seems to take a particular form. Understandably, for it is difficult for most of us to acknowledge our struggles, many writers speak of an important shift they made in addressing their mental health: realizing that despite the fact that everything “should” be good, they were still unhappy, suicidal, despairing or numb.
“People are busy rushing around doing impressive things, and I can’t get out of bed,” one student expressed on a blog. Others reflected on what Princeton “means,” with its status, coveted GPAs and eating clubs. And then these students shift: The fact that they can’t appreciate their circumstances indicates that something is wrong, and that they should be honest about their need for help. Not being able to get out of bed, losing consciousness and finding oneself on the steps of Blair Arch, or wondering if the Dinky goes fast enough to end your life without feeling it — please do not mistake us as dismissing the necessary recognition that these experiences require care and attention.
We are alarmed, however, at the potential to efface social meaning by perpetuating a particular mode of understanding depression: When people “intellectually” know that this club, this job, this grade are “the good” in life, bad feelings “must be” insidious or pathological. And as much as we would like to think that definitive lines distinguish unhappiness from “clinical” depression — both diagnostically, and for our self-categorization — the two are unsettlingly fluid. The terms are not interchangeable, nor are they mutually exclusive — and therein lies the necessity of an awareness that is at once compassionate but also critically engaged.
It seems that Mental Health Week is advancing more than just support and awareness of struggle. More broadly, it is medicalizing unhappiness at Princeton. Facebook statuses that say “we go to the doctor to take care of our bodies, we should do the same for our minds,” and videos such as the USG movie on “the 40 percent who seek treatment from CPS” further support this trend. There’s a strong argument to be made for medicalization: medical legitimacy helps relieve a sense of moral failing and, hopefully, stigma. But there’s also a risk: that feelings of inescapable badness are necessarily a sign of a malfunctioning self. A self that must be “treated” with methods to “untangle my thought process, recognize detrimental habits and consider alternative ways of thinking,” as one student reported, rather than facing the complexity of circumstance informing “chemical imbalances.” The onus for depression, and for doing something about it, is placed solely on the student and not her social world.
These narratives offer other readings. To us, one that must be considered is that Princeton students are often deeply unhappy, on a very large scale. Student voices speak of being at the top of an exclusive social ladder, and still feeling discontent.
Maybe this discontent isn’t wholly a problem with them. Maybe it’s institutional — beyond practices of silence. And no one says it can’t be both. Rather than diagnosing Princeton’s mental health problem as the fact that students aren’t seeking enough treatment, maybe it’s that insular and hierarchical social groups on campus suppress honest emotional expression and mutual appreciation. Maybe abolishing bicker, banning fraternities, ending grade deflation and taking an institutional stance against 18-year-olds ordering themselves into categories of social worth within weeks of entering college — maybe there could be a mental health intervention in there. We don’t mean to be diagnostic here, but do wish to suggest that in medicalizing unhappiness we may actually be suppressing honest and relevant criticism of how our campus culture facilitates depression. If there ever were a community that should be intellectually and personally supportive, socially rich and mutually appreciative, one that allows young adults to define themselves slowly, fluidly and expressively in the context of many different types of people, it would be that of the University.
If Mental Health Week served to ameliorate the pain of just one student, it was worthwhile. But being unhappy — even deeply so — need not mean that someone’s mind is flawed, as students suggest when they dissociate from their distress. Distress, no matter the form, can warrant help — medical help — but pathologizing unhappiness, as if it is necessarily spontaneous in the context of Princeton, can lead to institutional complacency and further alienate students from their own misgivings.
In reflecting on how people collectively communicate the reality of an illness, one can appreciate how shared language and modes of appreciation inform the entirety of an illness — from how it is understood to how it is lived. In a sense, our contribution revives some age-old slippery-slope concerns: We hope that Mental Health Week does not settle in the grooves being worn by its present idioms. In talk of depression and discontent on campus, as a plurality of voices becomes a chorus, we worry that what is said in unison may drown out questions and thoughts better considered aloud, together.
Raphael Frankfurter is an anthropology major from Durham, N.H. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Timothy McGinnis is an anthropology major from Charlotte, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. princeton.edu.
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