“Does Princeton exacerbate problems? Absolutely, this place is a freaking pressure cooker,” Kanwal Matharu ’13 said. “We’re all the time go, go, go. People never have time to sleep; people never have time for their friends; people never have time to take care of themselves.”
Matharu, who has sought help from the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, belongs to the 35 percent of students who said they developed mental health issues after first coming to Princeton, according to the latest Committee on Background and Opportunity report.
Released in the fall of 2012, the report is the third of its kind and seeks to document the state of student life at the University. Conducted by the USG in the summer of 2011, it surveyed the classes of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 on a range of student life issues. Over 1,800 students responded to the survey.
Most notably, the report found that close to half of students reported being depressed either “often” or “sometimes.”
But the number does not remain the same among campus minorities. Students who participated in the survey were asked to identify their race, gender and sexuality, among other personal characteristics. While close to half of African-American students reported depression, only a third of white students reported the same. Similarly, exactly half of female students reported depression, but only slightly over a third of male students said they felt the same way.
Likewise, more LGBTQA students reported that these mental health issues developed after they came to Princeton when compared with the general population.
Although many students reported mental health issues, 20 percent of students described themselves as belonging to the top 10 percent of students in terms of mental health. On the other hand, only 1 percent self-reported belonging to the lowest 10 percent.
“Princeton’s culture can be exclusionary and divisive, and that’s difficult and probably stressful,” Ben Levenson ’13 said. “Especially people who are coming at these problems with past histories, like I did — I think it just becomes a snowball effect.”
Levenson was featured in a video released by the USG during Mental Health Week earlier this year. The video, entitled “You're not alone,” featured students who identified as part of the 40 percent of students on campus who have sought help from Counseling and Psychological Services at some point during their time at the University.
In addition to the survey, members of the Mental Health Initiative, a committee within the USG, proposed creating a Mental Health Week to lead the execution and planning of the events each year. USG president Shawon Jackson ’15 said that this committee is currently working on a separate survey specifically geared toward assessing mental health on campus and will work on projects leading up to next year’s Mental Health Week as well.
"Not immune" to minority realities
Former USG president Bruce Easop ’13, who organized the survey, said that even though the data made sense, it was limited by its reliance on self-reported data and by the lack of standards for the definition of mental health issues. For example, Easop pointed out that the respondents were free to define depression. Despite this, it is still possible to interpret the data.
“[The survey] shows that Princeton is not immune to the realities of minority, LGBT and female students in particular having more issues with mental health,” he explained.
Some students said they felt that Princeton’s environment may not cause mental health problems but perhaps bring out preexisting conditions.
Student Health Advisory Board president Michael Kochis ’15 said he believes the University is diverse enough and that no group should feel marginalized or like it belongs to a “super minority.”
“But still, I guess it’s difficult for some people, some groups, to feel as at ease as other people,” Kochis noted.
The issue of increased mental health issues in minority, as well as female and LGBTQA, students on campus is a recurring theme of the COMBO III report. Similarly, students said they think there is a reason that these minority groups have more mental health issues than others on campus.
“Maybe it just has to do with the picture of what a Princeton student has looked like traditionally — I think traditionally it has been white, upperclass, male,” Eileen Torrez ’13 said. “It’s going to take a while for other people from other backgrounds to feel comfortable, to feel like they can be a version of the ideal Princeton student.”
But mental health issues are not unique to minority students, nor do students think that being a member of a minority population implies that mental health issues are more likely to occur.
Matharu, who is the founder of Sikhs of Princeton, said that he doesn’t think minority groups experience more issues due to their minority status, citing the fact that the University actively supports minority groups on campus. If anything, the mental health issues stem from day-to-day interactions, he said.
“Being a minority on campus is tougher when — it’s not institutionalized, it’s more of the day-to-day interactions,” Matharu said. “The University is acutely aware of the minority interests. It’s definitely not a University problem.”
"Mixed signals" from CPS
Students experiencing mental health issues can take advantage of several resources on campus, including residential college advisers, Counseling and Psychological Services at University Health Services and Peer Health Advisors, among other options.
According to several interviews, students have mixed reviews of CPS.
For Matharu, CPS has been very helpful in providing counseling, and he said he often encourages other students to go to the center if they are in need.
“CPS, as I understand it, is a very good system of talking out your issues with your professionals,” Matharu explained. “I’ve always found that communication, analysis, thinking about these things, getting it out, dealing with it head-on, are very helpful in coping with these problems.”
But not all students have had positive experiences with CPS.
“I really wish that CPS could somehow approach how they’re handling things better,” a student, who was granted anonymity to freely discuss her personal problems, said. She added that she received mixed signals from a therapist at CPS, where she has been utilizing services for over a year now.
“I feel very much confused about what’s going on, even though it’s been beneficial for me,” the student said.
Torrez said she believes the work CPS does is important and did not want to be too critical, but noted that she thinks improvements are needed.
“The experiences I had talking to counselors at CPS didn’t immediately solve my problem, and I kind of wanted it to, so that was frustrating,” she said. “I think they need to improve the quality of the counselors at CPS and their feedback mechanisms ... it was hard for me to find the right counselor, someone that I could actually trust, and I felt uncomfortable with the first couple of counselors that I saw. And I think that’s an issue that a lot of students have faced.”
Shifting the conversation
In order to continue raising awareness of mental health on campus, the USG hosted its second annual Mental Health Week at the end of February this year.
University Health Services conducted health screening to test students’ moods and had the highest number of screenings in its history with 104 participants, according to a report delivered by U-Councilor Farrah Bui ’14 at a USG meeting following the event. CPS also had 12 referrals during the week, which is a larger number of referrals than were made during the previous year.
Bui added that the USG sold 600 tickets over three nights for a special health-themed movie that week. Additionally, special fitness events were completely booked and each of the six residential colleges hosted healthy food study breaks and advertised the week with handouts. Four of the colleges — Butler, Forbes, Mathey and Wilson — also hosted lunch discussions regarding topics related to mental health.
Another feature of Mental Health Week was the “What I Be” project, which aimed to “bring security through insecurity” by photographing students labeled by a source of mental stress. Photographer Steven Rosenfield came to campus to photograph 81 students for the project. Shirley Gao ’13, the organizer of the event, said she was initially concerned that people would not want to sign up for the project, but the original 59 spots were filled within several hours and many requests for a wait list were filed.
“The state of mental health at Princeton — nobody is really talking about it,” Gao said. “Part of my goal with ‘What I Be’ was to start these conversations and get people thinking about it.”
But the message of “What I Be” also influenced students who did not have their pictures taken.
“I’ve heard some students have gone to CPS for the first time after they’ve seen these photos,” Gao said. “Others have said it has helped their stress to see they’re not alone.”
Nonetheless, students and officials agree that there needs to be a transition into action-based initiatives.
“They have these things like cookies and pictures,” the anonymous student said. “They think that that’s going to solve mental health problems on campus, but a lot of people are either scared to seek help, or [the programming] is helpful but there’s never a solution brought up.”
Kochis said it is SHAB’s belief that mental health is just as important this week as it is during Mental Health Week and the conversation about mental health should not stop once the week is over.
“Health is constant, and it’s not a one-week thing,” he said. “But if we can learn something during that one week or find a new perspective about ourselves or about the community in general, then that week is effective.”
Similarly, Torrez said that a shift in the conversation regarding mental health on campus is necessary for change to take place.
“I think once that happens, Princeton will better be able to incorporate students’ holistic health and be able to advance that rather than just academic success,” she said.
This article is the first in a three-part series discussing the results of the most recent COMBO survey. Check back tomorrow for a story on the survey's findings related to socioeconomic class on campus.