The fight to improve mental health on Yale’s campus has been a long and arduous one — a struggle plagued by immense anguish and pain. For many of us, it’s also a deeply personal one.
Yale Mental Health and Counseling has 37 clinicians who are meant to cover a student body of more than 6,000 undergraduates and over 13,500 total students. This means a ratio of roughly 368 students per mental health clinician, and while the University touts this number in comparison to peer institutions, wait times can be too long, sessions often seem too short and many students feel they haven’t been provided a good match. In other words, it’s obvious that this doesn’t cut it.
The culture of health care in the United States often prioritizes reactive rather than proactive care. Rather than preventing disease and illness, we treat it when it “inevitably” comes.
Take, for instance, the incredible gap in spending between public health versus health care, medical and pharmaceutical industries. In 2017, a mere 2.5 percent of health care spending was devoted to public health and prevention. Another tangible example is our national pandemic response — one that has become increasingly reliant on reactive measures like therapeutics and vaccines rather than preventative actions like social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting travel.
To a large extent, we’ve done the same with mental health. We’ve honed in on expanded mental health resources to help us address, process and cope with the realities of the world we face.
I’m not arguing that we don’t need more mental health counselors. In fact, my friends have probably heard me say, “Everyone should see a therapist.” Let me be clear. Mental health counseling is essential — for grief and anxiety, for depression and stress, for the good days and for the bad days. Seeking help is never something we should be barred from.
But, at the same time, therapy and counseling can’t be the end-all-be-all solution. There are deeper, more fundamental and more insidious aspects of our culture that need to be addressed. For far too many, giving our all still doesn’t feel like enough.
These fraught feelings of inadequacy have deeply pervaded into our expectations of a life worth living. Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” discusses the value of “striving” in life, but these days, we too often conflate “striving” with struggle.
In our academic life, it’s the way that we’re expected to prove ourselves. After all, for some majors, it’s a rite of passage to “make it through” those infamous classes meant to weed out students. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve seen friends awake at 4 a.m. agonizing over their problem sets. And at the end of the year, they serve as a badge of honor — a way of saying, “I made it past this near-impossible hurdle.” In our social and extracurricular lives, it similarly manifests as an air of exclusivity among clubs, social groups and other opportunities. Through systems of interviews, applications and selection processes, we struggle to prove that we deserve a place, that we’re “good” enough, “talented” enough or “passionate” enough.
It’s not just a problem at Yale or other Ivy League schools either. It seeps into almost every crevice of work and school culture. We are expected to grit our teeth, to toughen it out and to put our nose to the grindstone. And, we perpetuate these cycles with mantras like “no pain, no gain” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
We’ve lived with the societal belief that “those before me struggled and made it, so I should too.” If that doesn’t sound believable, ask yourself how many times have we compared ourselves to a “more successful” predecessor.
If we create a world where strife, toil and struggle are not only sufficient but necessary in proving our worthiness, mental health counseling becomes an essential form of health care.
But that doesn’t need to be the case. I believe in a Yale where we can strive, not struggle, to better ourselves. A Yale where 4 a.m. problem sets and 2 hours of sleep aren’t necessary to demonstrate our intellect and drive. A Yale where we don’t need to prove that we’re “worthy” to be in a club or find a social group. A Yale where the endurance of pain and suffering is to be questioned rather than to be judged as a mark of the victorious.
And to that end, I leave you with the ending of a poignant piece I read during my first year at Yale — a personal essay Jack Ross had written about his late son, Hale:
The message I hope you hear isn’t the daunting mantra displayed on the wall of Hale’s bedroom [“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”] but a kinder, gentler sentiment: Strive to be your best, but accept yourself for who you are. As my father once told me when I was in the throes of a major depressive episode that threatened to upend the world as I knew it, “You’re already a success.” I didn’t believe him then. I do now. I hope you do too.
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray college. His column, “It’s Complicated”, runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.