For some, Yale is a mental health risk

Popular opinion about collegiate mental health lately is that there is no difference between competitive and noncompetitive schools, between Yale and the rest of the world.

Indeed, roughly 800 to 1,000 University of Connecticut students used university-provided therapy last year, according to the school’s Student Mental Services spokeswoman. The number of Yale undergraduates who visited Mental Hygiene in 2000-2001 falls in the very same range: 800 to 1,000.

The difference, though, is that Yale has 5,253 undergraduates. Connecticut has 16,681.

And alongside the statistics, some students, patients, doctors and professors here think there is something more critical about the mental health situation on this campus.

There are those who say it is a matter of brain worship, which attaches a distinct stigma to mental illness at Yale. Others blame high numbers on increased pressure: from parents, from professors and from peers. Still others say that Ivy walls contain a special brand of student, not inherently more likely to seek therapy, but by nature more susceptible to some kinds of mental illness.



The stigma

Three weeks ago yesterday was the first ever Mental Health Awareness Day at Brown. Its founder is Keally Dewitt, a sophomore development studies major there.

Two years ago, Dewitt was a freshman in Directed Studies here who, after writing a suicide note to her family, spent 10 days in what was then the Yale Psychiatric Institute before leaving this school permanently.

“I thought of it as a weakness, something I should be able to tough out,” she said. “Really competitive schools attract that kind of personality type, I think. At a place like Yale, there is a sense that ‘I can do anything.’ Or at least, ‘I should be able to do anything.’”

As a result of this mentality, she said, psychological problems are discussed in hushed voices here, and that made it more difficult for her to get help.

“It was definitely really hard to go into Mental Hygiene in the first place,” Dewitt added. “It’s a pretty nice space, but I felt such a stigma attached to mental illness.”

It is the keyword almost everyone uses in the discussion of modern collegiate mental health services:

“Mental health issues are less stigmatized now,” said Kelly Brownell, the director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. “People are more willing to talk about them, and to get help for them when they need it.”

Among students who have avoided the building on Hillhouse Avenue, there is Yakubu Agbese ’05, who said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to go to a therapist if I were feeling really bad, but I feel like I’d automatically have the label of crazy. I think there’s still such a stigma attached.”

It is nothing foreign to the top rung of Yale’s mental health establishment, and, they say, the bulk of their focus recently has been on outreach.

“Mental Hygiene has an unfortunate stigma,” said Paul Genecin, the director of University Health Services, who nevertheless declined to give the exact number of students using Mental Hygiene.

“Undergraduate students as a group are less in touch with us overall,” he continued. “It’s difficult to get them to say, ‘I have a need.’”

There are outreach programs galore, said UHS chief psychiatrist Lorraine Siggins, and they are working on more. But it is ultimately the students who must seek help.



The people

Chad Sell ’05 said he does not think it is about stigma at all. He talks in Commons about his therapy, alongside discussion of hamburgers or midterms or what to do on Friday night.

“I’ll be sitting in the dining hall,” he said, “and I’ll say, ‘I had a therapist appointment today. It was rather fun.’ And some friends will say something like, ‘You know, I’d like to see a therapist. I think that might be kind of fun.’ People aren’t afraid to talk about therapy at all.”

Sell said he thinks students at Yale and similar schools do have different mental health concerns, but that it is a matter of imposed stresses.

“A lot of students at a competitive institution like this might feel a lot of pressure to succeed,” he said. “This kind of high-stakes intellectual life some people here lead can have a lot of negative side effects.”

Among some students and faculty, the idea that external pressures — perhaps unique to, but at least amplified for Ivy League students — are the cause of a distinct campuswide mental health state.

Brownell, whose eating disorder clinic is independent of UHS, said that Yale could have one of a pair of effects on its students.

“People tend to break it into two camps. One says women at Yale have so much going for them, so many good things on which to evaluate themselves that physical appearance would be less important than in other settings. Other people believe that Yale women are used to being good at everything, so they would feel under at least as much pressure when it comes to their appearance,” he said.

Asked where he stands, Brownell, a former master of Silliman College and the current director of graduate studies in Psychology, said “more or less somewhere in between.”

There are those on the faculty, though, who stick with convention and attribute high numbers of therapy-seekers to pressures not limited to U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 national universities.

Teresa Treat, another member of the Psychology Department and a specialist in clinical psychology, said that though she was unaware of the trend toward college students seeking more therapy. But, she said, she imagines that the numbers are likely attributable to “numerous factors which are unrelated to whether the students’ school is competitive.”

But among those dealing specifically with freshmen, the notion is popular that Yalies arrive in New Haven with predispositions to mentally hazardous activities — studying too much, being excessively preoccupied with extracurriculars and grades, the opinions of parents and professors.

“The path to Yale is a narrow one, where success can be defined in very limited terms.” said Michael Motto ’01, an undergraduate admissions officer and former head freshman counselor. “At remarkably competitive institutions such as Yale, it is often the case that some character traits have to be unlearned before one can find peace with him or herself.”



The pressure

Richard Kadison, the director of Harvard’s Student Mental Health Services, calls Ivy Leaguers “special.” Siggins calls them “competitive” but “supportive.” Dewitt calls them “brain worshippers.”

When Dewitt, now busy with the mental health advocacy group she helped to found at Brown, got to Yale her freshman year, she found it was taking longer to adjust than she had expected. Her Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trip had been OK, she said, but every once in a while she would have to leave the group to sit by herself and cry. Her classes were OK, she said, but being in D.S. occasionally seemed like “bludgeoning myself over the head with my studies.”

She found herself “caught in an academic machine.” She filled her schedule with activities, “appeared to be thriving,” and put off seeking help because of what she calls a typical Ivy League response.

“People are still very afraid of what mental illness represents. There is such an emphasis on your mental abilities at Yale, Brown, Harvard, in all the Ivy League schools, and any threat to that can be unsettling.

“People like to feel like they have things figured out or can figure them out intellectually, and, at least for me, that made everything much harder.”

One junior in therapy for depression at Mental Hygiene said she resisted therapy for a year for similar reasons.

“A lot of Yale students push themselves too hard,” she said.

There are, of course, Yalies on the other side, too, like Julia Strasser ’05, who said she sees no correlation between the institution and the mental fortitude of its students.

“I think that all college students are equally at risk,” she said, “because everybody has stress in their life. If anything’s different for us, then it’s probably that the illness is much more academic-oriented, not that it’s much more common.”

Freshman Noa Wheeler agreed that it was a matter of intellectual pressure, but unlike Strasser, said she thinks the schoolwork here would make psychological problems more widespread.

“The kind of students who would get into this school tend to have a lot of pressures put on them and to put a lot of pressures on themselves,” she said.

Ultimately, Strasser, who said one of her suitemates had seen a therapist at UHS, found herself echoing Dewitt, saying, “Academic abilities don’t mean you have the ability to limit or stop yourself when you need to.”



Tomorrow: What happens when the Yale system fails.

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