What Do We Do About It?

13 May

Northwestern_University_Winter

With the resurfacing of mental health discourse on campus at Northwestern, it’s about time we have a serious discussion about priorities. With the shocking death of a third student this year, people are understandably angry and confused. We once again mobilize over the buzzword “mental health,” eager to take action to prevent further tragedies. We point fingers at the lackluster counseling services on campus and cry out for more awareness of mental health issues through implementing a new ENU. But we fail to acknowledge our own complicity as a community.

After each suicide this year, I’ve been struck by community’s shock that anything was wrong in the first place. Now, all Northwestern students sacrifice their health and happiness from time to time to beat the curve, and many suffer in silence. But there are those among us who do not choose our unhappiness for later rewards. We suffer so deeply that the joys of our lives remain out of reach. Yet we too stay silent and go through the motions, even if we have been left void of all feeling, even if it absolutely destroys us inside. I do not wish to put words into others’ mouths, but I can at the very least say that I understand what this is like. Many of you know me as a good friend of the Ave and a leader of many campus organizations, but I am also a rape survivor.

I do not have the luxury of repressing my mental health issues because they have become such a part of who I am. A new force that is stronger than my old identity is taking the reigns and I feel that the old me is slipping away. I do not remember what made her happy or how she interacted with others, and for a long while the only emotions I felt were anger and apathy. Not a day goes by that I do not think of that night. What matters is not my identity, but that I could be any one of you.

At Northwestern, as with many major universities, we are conditioned to always keep moving, to fill our schedules and resumes believing this is the only way to get ahead in life. When others fall behind we believe it’s not our problem and focus only on things that affect us directly. When I disappeared from the NU social scene, dropped out of my sorority, and stopped attending classes, the people closest to me ignored my obvious emotional deterioration as evidence of an extremely busy schedule. My friends couldn’t have guessed that when I didn’t show up to a pregame I was wrapped up in a ball sobbing on my kitchen floor—but they should have known I wasn’t alright. They should have known to ask the question.

I don’t know why we as a community stay silent; we suffer in silence and watch our friends recede from Northwestern life in silence. Sometimes we take the next step and ask our friends if they are okay, but an assertion that they are “fine, really” is taken as permission to move on. Maybe it’s because we are scared. But people who have not experienced mental illnesses like depression or anxiety need to understand that throwing a million dollars at CAPS does not ensure that students like me will be motivated to step forwards and tell our truths to strangers. So what can we do?

We need to change our community priorities. Earlier this week, a friend of mine asked “if we can come together so strongly in wake of a tragedy, what’s to stop us from building this same community before tragedy strikes?” We need to make an effort to value our own mental health and that of our friends over the ephemeral awards of college life. In my experience, what we really want is support, to feel like people are there for us, even if we are not ready to fully open up to them. Ask your friends how they are really doing, and be there if you sense something is wrong. Don’t try to offer advice; just be there.

And to those who feel overwhelmed by their personal struggles and think no one can understand, know that you are not alone and do not be afraid to open up. I know it’s really, really hard to expose your vulnerabilities to other people, perhaps most of all since this requires admitting your needs to yourself. Admitting to my trauma was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it was only through honesty that I am finally beginning to move forwards, to add feeling back into my life.

So no matter what plagues you, know that your pain is real. If you choose to share, no one will view you differently, and you have nothing to be embarrassed about. As we have seen, silence is deadly.

I find it frustrating that this community, which comes together in the immediate wake of tragedy, disperses again soon after, returning to our blind individuality. We do this because it’s easy and safe. Showing more compassion and re-tuning our priorities is hard, but if we all make more of an effort to be aware and look out for each other and ourselves, this school will become a better place.

Does CAPS need a larger and more equipped staff? Definitely. But budget and policy changes aren’t enough: professional mental health services but supplement, not replace, a strong community. Despite our pretensions at invulnerable independence, no one wants to go up against the world alone.

-The Infinite Guest

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3 Responses to “What Do We Do About It?”

  1. Jessica May 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    I’m confused because I’m getting conflicting ideas from this. One the one hand, you say “And to those who feel overwhelmed by their personal struggles and think no one can understand, know that you are not alone and do not be afraid to open up. I know it’s really, really hard to expose your vulnerabilities to other people, perhaps most of all since this requires admitting your needs to yourself.”
    So basically, people suffering from mental health issues need to admit they’re having issues to themselves. I personally don’t struggle with mental health issues but I know people who do, and I agree with this statement. It feels like there’s nothing I can do when a friend won’t admit to themself that they have a problem.
    What I have done in this case is ask this friend how they’re doing and let them know that I’m there for them. I’ve even offered advice just in case they admit to themself in the near future that they have a problem and decide to follow my advice (“hey…uh…I’m not a doctor but I think you should try taking those anti-depressants that your doc prescribed…”) but there’s not much I can do beyond that – telling them I’m there for them and throwing in my advice when and if it is welcomed. But now, I’m conflicted because you said this: “…an assertion that they are “fine, really” is taken as permission to move on.” Well, yes, it kind of is indeed permission to move on. A bystander can’t really force anti depressant pills down their friend’s throat, or kidnap them and take them to a psychologist, or call their friend’s family who is already aware that their child is having issues.
    So then what is one supposed to do? I guess in this case, what we should be doing is this:
    “Ask your friends how they are really doing, and be there if you sense something is wrong. Don’t try to offer advice; just be there.”
    Isn’t just being there what we’re already doing? I’m here, I’ve been here, and I’ll be around for awhile I hope…unfortunately some people are luckier than others in terms of having good and true friends who really care about them, and unfortunately sometimes mental health issues can drive friends away, I’ve seen it happen. My personal opinion is that the real problem here is the stigma that comes with mental health issues, because then there wouldn’t be any reason to fear admitting to oneself that there’s a problem.
    What do you think? Am I right or am I not? This is a legitimate question. Just like you, the recent events on campus have got me really thinking about this.

    • Jane. June 7, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      I think what the author means by “permission to move on” is that a person moves on completely and ceases to offer their support and concern. What you should do in this type of situation is let it be known that you are still there for that friend. Text them sometimes, invite them out to a dinner or a party. Let them know they have worth and are important to you, whether or not they are willing to open up. You say “I’m here, Ive been here”. Trust me, they appreciate it more than you know. Also, I agree with stigma being a huge issue, silence is the most harmful thing out there, but that is not the only thing that keeps people from admitting what is wrong. There is a lot of fear involved, and often denial. Hope that helps.

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  1. Weekly Feminist Reader - May 19, 2013

    […] Campus mental health requires a strong community. […]

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