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Stop blaming students for the mental health crisis: A response to Ethan Hicks '26

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Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

A recent op-ed from Guest Contributor Ethan Hicks ’26 claims that Princeton’s academic rigor and mental health problem is merely “the price of greatness.”  This price is not right — the price of greatness and excellence should be hard work and dedication, not asking students to sacrifice their mental health. Yes, some stress has been scientifically proven to help performance, and whether it be from academics, extracurriculars, or social life, stress may be an inevitable part of life. Hicks echoes the words of President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 who first implied that academic rigor should not be sacrificed in the name of mental health. But, this choice to blame students for the campus mental health crisis deflects the causes of stress. We have to invest in our campus resources, not cast blame on the student body.

Let me be clear: I do not think Princeton should arbitrarily give out A’s to every student, nor decrease the depth and breadth of the academics offered here, nor make assignments less significant. Princeton is challenging and students who come to Princeton know that it takes hard work and dedication to succeed. Princetonians want to challenge themselves and immerse themselves in an environment to push their intellectual limits. Many would also agree that academic rigor as a concept should be preserved; In fact, academic rigor is one of the many things that makes Princeton great. 

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Luckily for us, academic rigor, including difficult rites of passage such as writing seminars and the senior theses, is not, in my opinion, truly at the heart of Princeton’s mental health problem. Rather, the problem is the lack of accessible mental health resources and our overall attitude towards mental health. What is the point of expanding campus when it’s clear that the real construction that needs to be done is expanding mental health resources? The current limitations of Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) and the steps that should be taken to improve CPS in order to truly meet the needs of Princeton students have been well-documented

Yet, I’d like to direct our focus to something equally important: the stigmatization of mental health on campus. Mental health, despite its importance, remains stigmatized, and the minimization of the struggles students experience is a step in the wrong direction. Both Hicks and President Eisgruber blame students for their own struggles with mental health. Hicks suggests that “self-destructive choices,” such as “[finding] ourselves on Prospect Avenue past midnight multiple times a week” whilst taking on a heavy course and extracurricular load, is what leads to deteriorating mental health. 

Similarly, President Eisgruber comments on Princeton’s “work hard, play hard” culture and asserts that if “‘play hard’ involves alcohol or other drugs, it is by far the riskier element of that couplet from a mental health standpoint.” These types of remarks place the blame on students for being overwhelmed, suggesting that choices solely devoted to having fun are problematic rather than restorative. This attitude stigmatizes mental health issues, causing students to be ashamed for so-called problems of their own making, rendering them less likely to seek help. 

However, for any successful — and, perhaps more importantly, fulfilling — life, balance is key. To many, the nights on Prospect are their outlet to de-stress. Extracurricular activities build relationships that last far longer than their time at Princeton. Taking difficult courses and setting ambitious goals motivates many students. Granted, everyone has difficulty with setting goals and managing their efficiency. Many of us do set challenging goals. Yet, these are not problems that warrant blame or intense criticism, especially considering that Princeton encourages students to take advantage of the bevy of opportunities outside of the classroom. The answer is not to make students feel guilty, but to provide the resources to improve their time management skills.

Worse, the stigmatization of mental health and stress coupled with an inadequate support network creates a perpetual cycle of worsening mental health, in which students need help but are unable to access it. 

Even the currently offered support focuses on productivity optimization at whatever cost necessary, as opposed to addressing the “deal with it” culture; the emails we receive about managing heavy readings or problem sets still center on trivial advice. Princeton culture says that the ends justify the means, and there is currently no effort to transform this into a movement to make obtaining a degree actually mentally sustainable. No emails or 50-minute appointments can change a dominant attitude.

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Any improvements to the support offered by CPS are likely to be ineffective unless they are coupled with efforts at destigmatization. After all, it doesn’t matter what resources are accessible if students are unwilling to utilize them. 

When we bring up our concerns about Princeton’s institutionalized limitations on supporting student mental health, we shouldn’t be accused of challenging the core principle of Princeton’s aspirational educational model and that we are looking for an “easy-way out”, advocating for grade inflation or the reduction of the quality of education offered here. Yet on the whole, complaints about stress and productivity culture have not asked the University to compromise its academic rigor; instead, they have been pleas for support and understanding. 

Rather than minimizing these natural parts of student life as “self destructive,” resources must be allocated to help students with time management and goal setting, through the McGraw Center or other programs. Furthermore, steps need to be taken to destigmatize these struggles and affirm to students that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a sign of weakness, that wanting to talk to others about these emotions isn’t unnatural, and that it isn’t shameful to utilize resources like the CPS drop-in hours and the Princeton Peer Nightline. I have the following demands for students: Increase outreach on an institutional level to destigmatize stress and mental health. Make mental health and stress management a core right for students here at Old Nassau. Academic rigor and student well-being can and should coexist, especially at an institution like Princeton.

Justin Lee is a freshman from Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at justin.lee@princeton.edu.

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