Students across college campuses talk a lot about free speech, often in the context of expounding potentially unpopular opinions. Is there free speech at Yale? Regardless of the social repercussions, Yalies can, by and large, speak their mind without fear of censorship. But is free speech really only about speaking out about politics? We should also consider how free we are to speak interpersonally, how free we are to express how we feel and who we are.
Even so, all over the country, but especially at Yale, our capacity for language, our ability to articulate how we feel, has devolved. Friends are “Interested!” in attending an event. Passing acquaintances are “Fine!” even when they really aren’t. Classmates are often silent for fear of not contributing to the next conversation-shifting comment.
There are non-verbal signals of our decaying language sense, too. Even in the dining hall, the most casual of conversational settings, students wear headphones — an act amounting to a “do not disturb” sign — while busying themselves in academic assignments. We shut ourselves off from the world around us, pretending that we need not each other but only our electronics. What we lack is genuine interaction.
Close to 40 percent of college students said they had felt so depressed last year that it was difficult to function. Sixty-one percent said they “felt overwhelming anxiety” at the same time, according to a spring 2017 American College Health Association survey of over 60,000 students at almost 100 colleges. Mental health is a very real problem, and it needs a very real solution.
A world of artificial interaction, insincere or online, breeds accumulated stress. What the human body physiologically requires, then, is an outlet for stress. Look around: There are thousands of students, who want to get to know you, and a community that needs your help.
Community engagement shouldn’t translate to “join more clubs,” nor does it necessarily mean more community service. Rather, it should encourage us to be there for each other in the little ways, when it counts. This past weekend, for example, one of my suitemates found the time — amidst a full set of courses, lacrosse practice and other extracurriculars — to cheer on friends at the Yale-Brown football game, watch another suitemate perform in “Venus and Adonis” and support the squash team at Ivy Scrimmages.
He was fully in the present — something that many Yalies, including myself, struggle to accomplish. We often succumb to the “one earbud in, one earbud out” or the “wearing headphones around my neck” aesthetic. This facade of independence discourages mutually beneficial interactions. The “working meal” is a classic example. Finding downtime at Yale is indeed challenging. It will always be challenging for ambitious and high-achieving Yalies who want to make a difference in the world. Yet health, particularly mental health, should be a priority. Past studies indicate that youth spending more than two hours a day on social media are more likely to report emotional stress. Despite Apple’s Screen Time functions, the “you’ve reached your time limit” notification can be neutralized easily by entering your passcode. There is even a scientific term, nomophobia, to describe the irrational fear of being without your smartphone.
Almost half of smartphone users are glued to screens for over five hours a day, according to a survey last year. My own average screen time last week was five hours and six minutes a day. Everyone seems to be so busy. Barring the unlikely possibility that the “second” is shrinking, this loss of time can be attributed to your phone. Instead of checking your phone nearly 85 times a day, as the average student does per a 2015 survey, you could be supporting your suitemates, throwing a birthday party, working for an important cause or just enjoying a simple dining hall conversation, a conversation that should be honest and genuine. We shouldn’t feel the need to make our speech concise. We shouldn’t always need to feel “awesome” or “amazing.”
Even if you don’t want to hang out with your classmates, you can engage with the community in a positive way. The News recently reported that a quarter of Yale students donated their meal swipes last Friday to benefit local community partners in New Haven. I am hopeful that yesterday, the majority of Yale students voted in the 2018 midterm elections. Easy and largely accessible efforts like these require simple actions and have enormous benefits, instilling a sense of belonging not only to each other at Yale, but also to New Haven, the U.S. and the world around us.
Let’s get more involved in community events, let’s engage in real conversation — let’s be honest with the world and with ourselves.
Samuel R. Turner is a first year in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .