“What’s wrong?” “Nothing.”
We bet you’ve had this exact exchange with a friend before. We both certainly have. And we bet more often than not, whether you were questioning or responding, you have sensed that the exchange was a mask, hiding a more complicated reality, and yet you let it stay as it was. Perhaps you just didn’t know how to get the truth out or felt like being honest would be a burden on the listener. We understand. But we also understand the need to change the status quo.
In a 2013 survey conducted by the University, “17 percent of Princeton undergraduate students reported feeling ‘so depressed it was difficult to function’ in the last 30 days.” And Princeton students aren’t alone. According to a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association, “Ninety-five percent of college counseling center directors surveyed said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern in their center or on campus,” and the problem is only growing worse. “Anxiety is the top presenting concern among college students (41.6 percent), followed by depression (36.4 percent), and relationship problems (35.8 percent).”
These statistics are too high. Mental health struggles are real and prevent Princeton students, college students, and the millions of those afflicted from enjoying a higher quality of life. But before we can address these realities, we need to acknowledge them. And yet we rarely talk honestly about how we are feeling. There is a stigma to answering the question “How are you?” with anything other than “fine” or “good” because we all implicitly understand the exchange to be more of a formality than a genuine question. Many of us are also raised not to speak honestly and openly about our feelings, so it can be difficult to provide an honest answer. But the refrains of "fine"and “nothing” do not help break the stigma.
Three years ago at a town hall on mental health reform, one student on the Mental Health Initiative Board, Kei Yamaya ’17, proposed a solution. She had heard of a documentary theater project, Me Too Monologues, that began at Duke University in 2009 by students, allowing their peers’ insights on race and identity to be heard by a wider audience. She proposed that the model could be employed to open a conversation on mental health. And she was right.
The structure lends itself well to address stigmatized issues such as mental health challenges. Students first anonymously submit monologues of their personal experiences with insecurities, and then actors perform six to eight of the submissions. The anonymity and student-led process allows students to speak honestly about their experiences, something they may not feel comfortable doing in a different setting. The pieces are then transformed into a production and performed by students, for students. Though you do not know the identity of the author, you do know that it is another student, just like you. Maybe even the person sitting right next you. Students’ reading the pieces makes the reality of the submissions come to life in a way only documentary theater can create. Each performance is then followed by an open discussion with all who have attended.
Together we have worked on the project since its inception: myself as a three-time project and stage manager, and Matt as a performer and then two-time director. After dozens of discussions with our own friends about the questions each year’s production raises, we remain fiercely committed to bringing this meaningful and relevant project to a Princeton stage and are excited to do so before we graduate.
Since beginning at Duke, the project has expanded to other universities, and this is the third year that Princeton will be hosting its own Me Too Monologues, exclusively regarding mental health. We need to build a community where people can discuss mental health issues without the burden of its associated stigma. Performances will be held on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. in McCosh Hall 10 as the capstone event of USG’s Mental Health Week, a week of programming and resources for students. Tickets for the performance are not required. Please come and be part of the effort to break down the stigma around mental health challenges. But don’t let it stop there. Keep the conversation going. Next time someone asks “what’s wrong,” know you don’t need to say “nothing.”
Marni Morse is a politics major from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Matt Błażejewski is an East Asian Studies major from Trenton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.