Last week, the University announced several initiatives to improve student wellness, including “The Wellness Project” and the expansion of mental health services. Wellness is an important part of the college experience because it is interlocked with issues ranging from alcohol use to sexual assault to free speech. While the administration seems to be making a sincere effort to respond to student feedback, we must remain cognizant of the conceptual limitations of wellness.
First, we should not allow the emphasis on individual wellness to obfuscate the structural factors that affect mental and physical health. College is stressful for everyone. But the burdens of college disproportionately affect specific communities, according to racial, gender and socioeconomic lines. For example, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face unique challenges in accessing mental health services, due to reasons of stigma and cultural differences. Similarly, sexual misconduct, an issue that overwhelmingly affects women, is inextricably linked with broader questions about mental health care provision for survivors.
Furthermore, a focus on personal wellness risks ignoring underlying questions about our campus culture. Pressure to succeed generates anxieties — and we need to examine the ways in which Yale perpetuates those strains. Yes, we can all choose how many extracurriculars to get involved in or how many internships to apply for; but those choices are often influenced by the incentives and norms of our environment. Somehow, we are all expected to maintain a decent GPA, juggle multiple extracurricular commitments and spend our summers “meaningfully” (read: in a way that looks good on a resume). Even as the University promotes the need to focus on wellbeing, we must continue to think critically about the extent to which our campus environment is the culprit here.
We should also consider the possibility that wellness should not always be an end in itself. There are circumstances in which being “unwell” can be valuable. Yale students, like all socially conscious citizens, should be aggrieved by cases of police brutality, upset by the global refugee crisis and perturbed by injustices big and small that all too often permeate our everyday lives. As the conversation on campus wellness develops, it must examine the legitimate role of “negative” feelings in the individual, rather than seek to eradicate them. This is vital, because psychology as a discipline has historically been manipulated to delegitimize those who challenge the status quo. Given that the wellness movement is deeply tied to the field, it deserves a dose of heightened scrutiny.
Similarly, a state of blissful content is sometimes undesirable. Stress can be a sign of something positive: the intellectual stretch which results from one taking a difficult class, or the personal growth one experiences when living away from home for the first time. College should be a time for challenging ideas and beliefs, lest we unknowingly slip into self-absorbed complacency. And that process is often discomforting. Accordingly, we must recognize the distinction between being well and being happy. College should never be merely about making students happy — that is the job of Disneyland.
To be clear, wellness is an important personal and communal goal. Unless we seek to condemn ourselves to a perpetual state of existential doubt, or intend to stage a revolution, we must equip ourselves with the skills and resources to cope with the world as it currently exists. In this regard, the University’s initiatives are to be welcomed. But policy alone cannot resolve mental health problems in higher education. Even as we learn to regulate our feelings, we will need to do a fair bit of thinking.
Jun Yan Chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com .