POSNER: Addressing mental illness

Living with an anxiety disorder complicates things. Normal activities can take on unimaginable difficulty: traveling by airplane, taking road trips, going to class, getting in elevators and sleeping over at friends’ houses have all presented enormous challenges at different times in my life.

Anxiety complicated my excitement about coming to Yale. I had spent the past two years of high school grappling with, and just finally overcoming, some of the manifestations of my anxiety disorder. I had trouble sitting through fifty-minute classes and needed the seat closest to the door. I had a medical pass to take the breaks I found necessary to make it through my six-period day. I had just barely established a trusting relationship with my third therapist (I had seen two others in my middle and elementary school days — anxiety and I go way back).

Entering college, I was looking at four years of navigating mental healthcare virtually on my own, with all of the triggers that college presents: stress, lack of sleep, exhausting social interaction and intense self-analysis.

I’m not alone in this struggle. Today, 25 percent of Americans 18 and over are diagnosed with some type of mental illness. The rate is rising among college students, but that is not necessarily a bad thing — rather than indicating that more young adults are suffering from emotional issues, it might mean that more of those individuals are able to attend college due to advancements in psychiatric medication and university mental healthcare. As Stony Brook University’s Director of Counseling Jenny Hwang told The New York Times, this generation of students is entering college with complex personal histories.

“Now they’re bringing in life stories involving extensive trauma, a history of serious mental illness, eating disorders, self-injury, alcohol and other drug use,” Hwang told The Times.

In educating and housing young adults for a chunk of their lives, college staff and administrators take on a pretty heavy responsibility in terms of looking out for student mental health.

Yale certainly offers plenty of resources, with the University’s Mental Health & Counseling Department supplemented by student organizations like Walden Peer Counseling and Queer Peers. Yet it feels like there is a disconnect between the student population and the resources that seek to provide for our wellbeing. Yale does have the mental health resources it needs — but students don’t seem willing enough to use them.

There are a number of factors that discourage students from caring for their mental wellbeing: the stigma of mental illness, insufficient education on the symptoms of common emotional issues, fear of the implications of a positive diagnosis, pressure to feel as happy as our classmates claim they are. For all of our willingness to discuss sensitive issues, mental health is still a vastly under-discussed and misunderstood topic among Yalies. Upon learning that the topic of my op-ed was student mental health, a friend replied, “So Yale might be making me crazy?” Such dismissive generalizations may have no malicious intent, but they still contribute to an environment that marginalizes those who deal with mental illness.

Yale has come incredibly far in opening up student dialogue on issues such as sexual pressure, sexual orientation and substance abuse. It’s about time that the school initiate a new type of campus discourse: Yale needs to address depression, anxiety, compulsion, self-harm and disordered eating — mental issues endemic to today’s young adults. Of the many Camp Yale meetings I attended, none really prepared my classmates or me for dealing with emotional and mental issues. I have a more thorough background than most in recognizing symptoms of emotional distress, but who is passing this sort of knowledge on to my peers? Simply pointing out the presence of mental health resources isn’t enough.

I want to see Yale students addressing freshmen on issues of mental health next August. If we offered incoming students education on emotional issues half as comprehensive as our discussion of sexual health and consent, we’d be in a far better place.

But students and educators need to share the responsibility in enacting this sort of cultural shift. The social stigma of mental illness is still tangible to anyone who has tried to speak publicly about the issue. As gratifying as publishing this article may be, it’s still immensely scary to announce my anxiety to an audience. We Yalies put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be happy, thinking emotional wellbeing correlates with our success as students and human beings.

Students need to hear their peers openly discussing mental health to know that Yale is a safe space for not being “okay.” Communicating the frequency and normalcy of mental health problems, as well as acknowledging the symptoms that students may face, is the first step in bringing students closer to the University’s many resources for mental health. Let’s get talking.

Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu.

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