The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Something is fundamentally broken within Princeton’s mental wellness system. This comes as no surprise to many of us students. However, there are two key points that are currently being overlooked. First, the problem is worse than many realize. Secondly, the problem is not our resources in themselves — Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), University Health Services (UHS), and Undergraduate Student Government (USG) are not pernicious forces on campus. The problem is the fundamental structure of Princeton’s environment. To change anything about wellness or improve the efficacy of existing resources, we must change how Princeton operates.
The American College Health Association surveyed around 740 students at Princeton in 2020, and as a result they estimated that about 2.4 percent of Princeton students have attempted suicide in the past year (this survey has yet to be released). Moreover, just under 25 percent of Princeton students have considered suicide at least once in the past year. Extrapolating our statistics, we can determine that we have roughly 135 suicide attempts each year and just under 1,400 students considering suicide each year. It is further estimated that 7 out of 100,000 college students commit suicide. Within the past year, our statistic has been 3 out of around 5,500 — a factor of 7.7 times higher. While there is a lot of additional information that must inform how we analyze and compare these statistics, it is clear that Princeton students suffer from poor mental health.
So far I have only mentioned those with suicidal thoughts, but there are many more students who are simply suffering. Think: if 25 percent of our population has considered suicide at least once in the past year, how many more are more consistently depressed, anxious, fatigued, dealing with substance abuse or trauma? How many more are in this middle zone, struggling to stay above water? The Healthy Minds Study found that there are about three times as many students with some form of depression as those who have considered suicide. That implies that a rough bound of 75 percent of Princeton students suffer from some form of depression. Combining this with the overwhelming number of students who are stressed or anxious, we can see that Princeton’s mental health problem is severe.
Now to my second point: The problem is not our institutions. Too often, I see people blaming CPS, UHS, or USG for this problem. I have met with so many people from these organizations who are trying their best to help in a system that gives them nothing and expects everything. We consistently see that the leaders of CPS, UHS, and mental wellness groups are expected to solve Princeton’s mental health crisis; they are saddled with running task forces, committees, and plenary meetings, all while talking with students daily, lacking proper resources, and of course, taking care of their own mental health. This is unrealistic, to say the least. CPS, UHS, USG, and several administrators work on Princeton’s mental health tirelessly, but there is only so much they can do in a broken system.
These people, whether they are from CPS, UHS, or even from the administration, care deeply about Princeton students. I have had heartwarming talks with many people from CPS and the administration, and the level of care they have shown has moved me to tears. Let me say it one more time: These people are not the problem. I understand that some people have had poor experiences at CPS and I will be the first to validate what you’ve experienced and how you feel. But most of the problems or “horror stories” which have come out of CPS are because of the overarching problems of Princeton.
How can we expect CPS to keep up? I mentioned earlier that, based on this math, around 25 percent of Princeton students have considered suicide in the past year (around 1,300 students). To put this into perspective, the largest hospital in the United States has the capacity to treat 1,700 people. Unless we expect CPS to be able to transform into a hospital that has the capacity to treat an entire large-scale city, no matter how many more counselors we add, we will not be able to keep up.
While CPS does need to improve by hiring more counselors and support staff, CPS is the treatment for the problem that Princeton creates. Look at our statistics — perhaps around 75 percent of our population suffers from some form of poor mental health, and perhaps 25 percent consider suicide. These numbers are extraordinarily high. What does this point to other than a systemic problem at Princeton? In other words, the problem is how Princeton operates. Princeton contains this overwhelming population of suffering and expects (and often blames) CPS to keep up. Adding more resources does not solve the problem that Princeton creates.
So what should we do?
We need to change how Princeton operates and the environment it creates. Let’s stop expecting students to carry on this double life of being a student, an athlete, an activist, a president, and someone who has to take care of themselves. As it stands, it is impossible to take the time to care for oneself at Princeton.
USG’s Mental Health Committee is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a complete solution. This committee can and will foster change within our resources and shape some of Princeton’s policies — mostly by trying to bring “passive” mental health support within Princeton resources, which does not place as much burden on students to reach out to seek support. But this committee cannot be expected to take on the full weight of Princeton’s mental health crisis. The Mental Health Committee is composed of students with their own commitments and struggles, and who only have a few years at this University. Systemic change occurs not over the span of a few hours each semester, but years of dedicated effort which no individual student can feasibly give. Moreover, the power of this committee is limited — the best we can do is suggest that the University take action in a particular way, but success is contingent on their availability, desire, and willingness. Thus, change must come on a more systemic level.
Princeton must commit to a serious effort toward reforming its wellness system. In my mind, the most substantive change can only come from a formal committee within the administrative body dedicated to reforming Princeton’s overarching culture around mental health. This committee would show a clear administration effort towards mental health, create a formal, mandatory structure to mental health change, and avoid the delays that inevitably come with trying to schedule meetings across various campus groups. Additionally, this would be run by Princeton’s administration in conjunction with students so that mental health is not shoved off onto students and CPS.
This permanent committee would ensure a few goals. Firstly, it would ensure mental health work is a sustained, interdisciplinary effort between students, administrators, faculty, and staff — which does not rely on the temporary work of students, staff, and some administrators to take time out of their work to perform the necessary task of mental health reform. Secondly, it would ensure students are not punished for taking time to take care of themselves. For instance, mandating that some late days or absences are always accepted in classes, and that appointments at CPS are always recognized.
Thirdly, it would make sure that the support that students receive does not create extra stress or burden on students. In other words, ensuring that students receive support passively, rather than needing to cold email or research Princeton’s support system. Finally, it would ensure that students from very different academic, social, economic, linguistic, etc., backgrounds receive support that helps them best, rather than clump people under the same system, expecting immediate and smooth integration. For example, we should adopt MIT and Caltech’s policies that first-years receive pass/fail grades for their first semesters, allowing students to take the time to adjust to college life without feeling too much pressure in their classes.
These are only some of the things that I believe are fair; there are many more steps we can take.
I want to talk personally to the students who are suffering. I want to say that I understand you. I’m doing what I can to change this, and I am sorry you have to feel this way. If you ever need something to change, someone to cry on, or even a hug, I am here for you. I love you, Princeton.
Noah Luch is a junior in the Physics department, originally from Hudson, Ohio. He runs the Physics department’s Undergraduate Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion working group and USG’s Mental Health Committee. He may be contacted at email@example.com.