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On March 4, 2018, The Daily Princetonian published a heartbreaking anonymous column by a student diagnosed with schizophrenia. The student alleges that the University disregarded their psychological and academic needs. In a disturbing anecdote, the student claims, “Two Public Safety officers barged into my room, assaulted me, pinned me down to my bed, handcuffed me, and dragged me out to the ambulance waiting outside my dorm building.” The larger context of this alleged incident is not entirely clear.

The column, while unverifiable, exhibits how the University is unequipped to meet the needs of students with severe psychiatric conditions. Beyond its institutional criticism, the piece further demonstrates how alone and hopeless students with mental illness feel on campus. This must change, and the change begins with reforming student attitudes toward mental illness. 

In the last several months, the ‘Prince’ has published multiple articles about the intersection of mental illness and social experience at the University. The heartbreakingly urgent anonymous “Letter to the Editor: Too much to ask” asks students to be there for friends who are struggling with mental illness and encourages the University to make Counseling and Psychological Services’ Princeton Distress Awareness & Response program, which “teaches people how to respond to someone in distress,” a mandatory exercise. 

Similarly, guest contributor Carolyn Beard ’18, in an intimate piece, proposed the creation of a Mental Health Peers program, in which an organization of students would provide support for other students enduring mental and emotional health crises.

I support the sentiments and proposals of both of these important pieces. But the increased peer-level care advocated by these pieces, as well as other potential initiatives for enhanced mental and emotional health care and awareness, will only be realized if students exhibit greater empathy toward their peers who are enduring mental and emotional health issues.

I have been fortunate to have found several people on campus who care about my well-being. Unfortunately, other Princetonians, especially students who struggle with mental illness, sometimes feel as though they are uncared for by their peers, who seem to only care about self-interested aims — like getting a pass to Ivy or that coveted summer internship.

Worse, I have heard peers on campus trivialize, misrepresent, stereotype, and deride mental illness and psychotherapy. For example, the labeling of students with mental illness as “crazy,” “weak,” or “lazy” is a well-hidden, but real part of the student body’s social discourse. At a place like Princeton, consequently, where intellectual strength is tied to emotional “toughness,” students often write off mental illness as a character flaw rather than acknowledge how mental illness is a serious medical condition — and, in some cases, a disability. Although many of us accept peers who are demographically different from ourselves, we still seem unable to fully accept students with psychiatric conditions. Such disregard and condemnation of students with mental illness by other students perpetuates the suffering and loneliness of mentally ill Princetonians.

Students are, at least to some extent, a product of the institution they belong to. Accordingly, the University must also be held accountable for the stigmatization of mental illness on campus — as well as for the inadequate mental health care that some students allegedly receive at McCosh Health Center. But a greater allocation of mental health resources and the expansion of access to existing resources by the University will only be successful if students stop stigmatizing mental illness. Students will feel more comfortable utilizing such resources if they believe their peers will not mark them as inferior for doing so.

Accordingly, the University — specifically, the University’s student body — needs to undergo a cultural reformation. That is, we need to be more conscious of how we contextualize and frame mental illness, as this will affect how students with mental illness are socially ranked. By continuing to dismiss the seriousness of mental illness and judging those with mental illness as inadequate, we perpetuate the systematic condemnation, exclusion, and alienation of students with psychological and emotional disorders. But we can alter this social script by demonstrating empathy toward those who are struggling with mental illness and rejecting false, destructive stereotypes of those with psychiatric conditions.

Suffering from mental illness or other emotional crises in college — especially at a rigorous institution like Princeton — is hard enough. Mental illness, like other human illnesses, is a draining, frightening, and isolating experience. Hence, the last thing our mentally ill peers need is our judgement and derision, and the first thing they deserve is our unconditional love and support. 

Samuel Aftel is a sophomore from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at saftel@princeton.edu.

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