A few weeks ago at lunch, I told a friend that I had struggled with anorexia and depression when I was younger, and that sometimes those experiences were still a part of my daily life. Yes — just like that, over a plate of stir-fry, I said it. My friend didn’t miss a beat; our conversation went on for over an hour, and we marveled at the fact that it was the first time either of us had so casually opened up about our mental health. We agreed that the campus attitude toward the topic was supportive and open-minded and were thankful that events like the upcoming Mind Matters panels were actively raising awareness.
A few days later with a different group of friends, I brought up an idea that I had heard about earlier in the semester: a student-led mental health council composed of any and all students willing to actively share and speak about their own mental health experiences. This time, I was dismayed by my friends’ reactions: “Wow, that’s high-stakes,” one person said. “I don’t know, you should probably make the whole thing anonymous,” said another. Most seemed uncomfortable about the idea of speaking openly about mental illness, despite their agreement that mental health needed to be better addressed on campus.
Troubled and disappointed by these responses, I began to wonder: If so many of us agree that there is nothing unacceptable or unusual about mental illness, how come we can’t even talk about it — and I mean really talk about it — amongst our friends? If people are so averse to bringing the conversation anywhere near themselves, how can it truly feel normal and acceptable? I’ve been at Yale for nearly four semesters now, and maybe three of my dozens of conversations about mental health have ever gone beneath the surface. Instead of talking about our own experiences with anxiety and depression, we make broad political generalizations, use vague examples and perpetuate a distanced discourse of a topic that is, in fact, a central piece of our lives. So sure, there is space for talking about mental health at Yale — but only if it is impersonal.
I understand why people are hesitant to take the next step. My experiences with body dysmorphia were — are — not happy. Depression is not pretty. Anorexia is not “put-together.” And most importantly, the topic of mental illness is nothing like the lively and carefree Yale persona that we all work so hard to maintain. Our authenticity is overshadowed by the desire to maintain a campus persona, at the cost of our own comfort and self-acceptance. We fear open discussion because it reminds us that even after all the hard work we put into keeping up with life at Yale, we’re still not perfect or perfectly happy.
But that’s exactly the point. If we could open up new spaces in our campus dialogue — spaces where we could say how we really feel today, and not just what we’re supposed to feel — we could change the way that we shoulder the burdens of our past and present struggles. After all, our mental health is not some distant concept or broad sociopolitical ideology; it is a tangible part of our daily lives, in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction and eating disorders that we are all aching to speak about without shame or pause. “I am dealing with depression” and “My anxiety has been difficult to handle lately” should be no more groundbreaking to hear from a friend than any other personal comment. In fact, it should be the norm, because the fact we all deal with mental health on a daily basis is very much the norm.
No one’s mental health should be “too high-stakes” to bring to the table, especially not amongst friends. Panels and speaker events, though helpful, are not enough to transform an entire campus culture. After all, we all agree that mental health matters. So let’s all talk about it like it matters. With enough courage, compassion and authenticity — and perhaps even a mental health initiative to centralize our efforts — the Yale community is perfectly capable of dismantling the self-perpetuating cycle of mental health stigma and campus silence. The mutual trust and respect that we need to incite change is already in place. If we can agree on that, then we’ve already lowered the stakes — just like that.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .