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The crazy mask: How Carnegie Mellon pathologized humanity

Credit: Raheela Ahsan/ Credit: Raheela Ahsan/
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Every day seems to bring a renewed discussion of Carnegie Mellon’s feared stress culture and how it tears the souls from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young students who come to the school ready to learn and leave thinking of school only as a competition for who can cause themselves the most pain. To be honest, that is probably an accurate depiction of what happens on this campus. That said, the direction the discussion often takes — intertwined with mental health initiatives — both does little to solve a problem and crowds out a different conversation that needs to be had on campus.

The best distillation of stress culture at Carnegie Mellon, in my opinion, is an excellent article from Dec. 3, 2012 by former online editor of The Tartan, Katie Chironis titled “The happy mask: Carnegie Mellon must address stress culture.” It outlines the cultural underpinnings, origins, and effects of stress culture at Carnegie Mellon. I also think the initiative she pointed out — Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Together — is one of the most effective ways people have come up with at dealing with these sorts of problems. However, I personally feel she is wrong when she says the need for this is because counseling offered by Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is insufficient. That particular justification is now the most prominent in discussions of stress culture here.

There is always talk of the need to expand mental health services in regards to stress culture because it concerns a lot of things we’ve been trained to associate with mental illness, like anxiety and suicide. However, this is a misleading connection that is not helpful to people who experience stress culture, nor to people who experience mental illness.

Clinical counseling as a treatment for someone who experiences stress in response to stressful situations merely pathologizes a normal reaction. Chironis makes an important point when she says “Maybe it’s that every time we brag to each other about our workload, we’re covering up our fear with that same bravado. On this campus, it’s normal to ignore your stress and pretend like you’re doing fine.” The problems with perceiving the people around you as happy while you are miserable are well documented. A University of Warwick study from 2011 found that when people feel as if they are struggling in a sea of thriving people, their despair is magnified by comparison.

This is a problem that is very explicitly not fixed by counseling and other mental health initiatives. This is a social health epidemic and needs to be addressed as a cultural problem, not a lack of mental health resources.

Solutions would look a lot like the aforementioned MIT Together. Working toward a culture of empathy is an important step, as is trying to broaden the horizons of students beyond immediate life on campus. When people go to therapy as a primary solution, we’re stuck in a catch-22 of either risking students’ confidentiality or putting students in a position where they still feel as if they are the lone zebra struggling to catch up to the pack as the lions close in.

The other side of this is problematic as well. Discussion of mental illness on Carnegie Mellon’s campus is incredibly stunted. We consistently hear candidates for Student Government and other faculty talk about expanding CaPS in response to stress. On the other hand, we rarely hear about depression and anxiety disorders in these discussions at all, despite both being on the rise among college students — particularly those who live far from home. CaPS is occasionally completely overloaded, sometimes needing two weeks to get students in for appointments and, as I’ve mentioned previously, shipping chronically mentally ill students off to “the community,” which is less than ideal. Students who deal with sexual assault and relationship violence and absolutely need professional help are unable to access emergency care and, when they do, are caught in a system that is unable to meet their needs.

Carnegie Mellon has a better plan for dealing with Ebola, an outbreak that happened over an ocean away, than it does for common mental illnesses. I once went to Health Services after a few sleepless nights caused me to pass out during an exam. I went home with a prescription of Zoloft for anxiety and Trazodone for insomnia. The Zoloft made me violently ill, the Trazodone did, uh, nothing, and both were prescribed after a single visit with no second thoughts. Medication is key to the process, but it has to be a process, not just a reaction. That’s not a good environment for healing.

It’s time for us to change the conversation on stress culture from a mental health dialogue to a cultural dialogue. Mental illnesses should not have to fight stress culture for oxygen and airtime and social health should not be trapped under the ill-fitting banner of mental health. It’s absolutely terrifying that our collective consciousness as a campus thinks you need a therapist to tell you it’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed sometimes and that does not devalue you as a person.

The fact that this comes at a cost to the safety of other students shows that our reaction to stress culture — to compartmentalize and pathologize it — has become as toxic as the culture itself.