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Content Warning: This article includes descriptions of mental illness. For resources regarding mental health, please visit Mental Health America (MHA) or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline.
I was lying on a yoga mat on the floor when my coach called me. It was February, and my dorm room was hot. I finally had worked my heart rate up over the duration of a 30 minute workout video I found on YouTube: Quarantine Cardio for Runners. My room smelled, too. I had neglected the trash that week, the start of second semester classes. Plastic containers were stacking up on every surface, and the chicken grease coating their insides was stinking up everything.
"Yo Iz!" The familiar greeting from my cross-country coach. Our usual openings and updates, then he asked me what the secret to my high school's national championship title was. I wasn't prepared for the question, and at the time, I wouldn't have known the answer. I had never trained with any other cross-country team. I told him as much.
"That's fair," he said, "But there was something in the water, and I wonder if I brought that water over to New Jersey. You and your sister have something going on."
I did have something going on. My room was a mess. I posted a picture of it on Instagram. I spent money until my debit card was declined at Urban Outfitters. I slept through classes. I was late to practices. I dressed differently: dark. I talked differently: short, quick. I ate until I threw up. I liked it when my nose bled. I wanted to be done. Someone, something, somehow, had wronged me.
Others had it worse, I was sure. In between my toes and fingers as I laced up my running shoes, underneath my tongue as I talked with friends and teammates, a mental health battle was threatening to break my practiced, placid surface. I secured an appointment with a CPS specialist just three weeks before I flew home, early, from campus. It was too late, though, to turn my semester in Princeton toward bearable. My mother said I was unrecognizable when she brought me home. The woman my coach referred to as being a “special something in the water” would come close to drowning in the shortcomings of Princeton's mental health support system.
Mental health issues and support for them live in negative space. Mood is evasive and its unpredictability, when mismanaged, has lead to stigmatized incorporeal descriptors, from "wishy-washy" to "psycho." Management, therefore, is imperative to understanding and healing mental health problems.
Princeton students have insatiable desires to achieve — we already have some level of "crazy" in common. We need to lean on other minds for our mental health management. This year, that help needed to come from the University. Instead, we got a condensed timeline, a shortened spring break, and an emphasis on stress over stress-management.
Students experienced burnout to an unprecedented degree, and we felt like we must've been out of our minds. A helpful Princeton FAQ might have been, "What is wrong with me?" Princeton should've been recognizing and responding to burnout as quickly as it was identifying incorrect answers to p-sets. The University failed and the FAQs beg yet another question: What was Princeton thinking?
If any Princeton structure needed to stay intact during this year's unprecedented wave of mental health crises, it was Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). CPS resources were working for those who were lucky enough to secure standing appointments. It took pulling strings, too many emails, and, most devastatingly, time to be among the few CPS could take in. The red tape was discouraging enough. Princeton students, each with their special something-in-the-waters, came crashing down and our unsupported mental health issues were left to dissipate across all aspects of our lives.
The short-term consequences of our mental health issues will dry out — classes will be in person, students will be vaccinated, and the environmental changes that time brings will alleviate students' surface-level pain. However, at such a crucial point in our development, some mental health issues, ignored, covered up, or self-treated, will leave cracks in many students' foundations. This is not to suggest that CPS, as it stands, is unwilling to meet students' demands. However, it is vital that the resource be expanded to accommodate students seeking help — and integrated into campus culture enough to find students who aren't, but should be, using CPS.
My #PrincetonPsychProblems (someone, make the hashtag already) began last semester, from home. My dean scheduled a Zoom call to discuss a language test for which I had received a "C" (an average I can only hope for, in my second semester classes). Poor time management wasn't the root problem of my early floundering. Looking for help, I admitted that I was recently diagnosed with depression. My dean evaded the word throughout our meeting, visibly uncomfortable, as she rattled off academic organization strategies. It was only after I broke down crying, in shame and more than 3,000 miles away, that she sent me a link to CPS.
I emailed a CPS specialist. I did not hear back. (The next time I emailed CPS, six months later, I CC'd a dean and a coach to ensure I received a response.) Meanwhile, my grades, organization, hygiene, and sanity were slipping. When I submitted my last exam, my parents pushed our furniture to the periphery of our living room. We danced to "Bad" by Michael Jackson, and I tried to push a semester of trauma to the periphery of my mind.
This year, CPS shouldn't have been offered through "the chat" as the last and only resort a struggling student can book for their pity party. "Struggling student" is redundant. CPS should have been an assumed and easy addition to every conversation and curriculum. CPS should have had a face.
This year at Princeton was unprecedented, but it was also my first impression of Princeton. I couldn't be more disheartened by the University's unbalanced insistence on mental stress over mental health. Princeton's COVID-19 policies were omnipresent this semester, but what should have been an obvious and corresponding mental health follow-up was nowhere to be easily found.
CPS faces are invisible, and its shoulders are weak. Our patience is as short as our spring break. No longer can we fault the students for failing to reach out.
Isabel Max is a rising Sophomore from Bend, Ore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.