Alcoholism and mental health at CMU

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Recently, in light of the deaths of two students, our campus decided to reopen the discussion of mental health and stress culture at Carnegie Mellon. Unfortunately, our campus has the memory of a goldfish, and one aspect that remains under-discussed is the fact that some of us take our stress out with alcohol and other drugs.

Carnegie Mellon has an alcohol problem. This may seem surprising to most people as we are supposedly stereotyped as a campus of anti-social nerds living in Gates. This, evidently, is not true. In terms of undergraduates who do participate in the drinking culture here (around two-thirds, as specified in the 2014 Healthy U Survey), we are in line with the national average. Carnegie Mellon does have the normal college drinking experience. However, students don’t feel validated in this, which adds to the problem — in order to convince ourselves that we do party here, we go too hard.

It was also reported in the 2014 Healthy U survey that 19 percent of undergraduates and 17 percent of graduate students reported drinking to relieve stress. This number may seem small, but it’s still a good number of students who use alcohol to deal with stress. It’s not that our drug and alcohol behavior is abnormal, it just has an extra layer — while most college students can take a breath and enjoy their life soberly, here students go from working to drinking and back and forth, without a break to just breathe. Had three exams this week? Get wasted the second you get done. That one notoriously hard CS class? Work till 11 p.m. and get drunk afterwards. Repeat every weekend. The reality is we don’t leave time for sober interaction without drinking and without studying. This creates an environment where we take out the worst things that have happened to us in the worst ways possible, leaving this unhealthy culture, eventually causing some people to have dependencies.

Then there’s Carnival. We all love Carnival, as it is sadly the one time a year everyone on this campus seems to drop all responsibilities and leave the libraries, which turns into a drinking fest at the end of day. When do we get a break? When do we get to breathe without being drunk? What’s even worse is that I’ve even heard some instances of people having homework due over Carnival, just adding to this stressed-get-drunk culture. The fact that Carnival is marketed as the only time that we behave like a normal campus means that how we behave during it says a lot. Because it’s the “only” time it can end up in disaster, as students once again push their limits a bit too hard.

This stress-drinking culture, in addition to our need to feel validated in our party culture here, also stems from the fact that there is this image of the ideal Carnegie Mellon student who works hard in their respective STEM field, has a decent social life, does well in school, is involved in leadership positions, and on top of all of this gets at least seven hours of sleep. But is this possible? The motto of Carnegie Mellon is to put “our heart in the work,” but where do you get time to be yourself when you are in the work and then just get drunk?

We are expected to live up to this ideal standard of human, and put our hearts and souls into the work. But the reality is that doesn’t actually make for a well-balanced human being; we put our hearts into the work before we put our hearts into ourselves. That’s messed up because that’s when we define ourselves by our accomplishments and grades rather that just existing and valuing our own existence. Putting our heart into the work is essentially a capitalist idea, that we try to humanize and make apply to us. The idea that we are our work, and our grades are accomplishments, is one of the largest contributors to stress culture here at Carnegie Mellon, and if we don’t live up to that we crash. On top of all of that, some of us crash into drinking, drugs, and harder drugs until we can escape everything that is our work, which makes up who we are, and results in the culture we have right now.

So I propose this: let’s put our hearts in ourselves before our work. Self care, which is a very simple concept that seems to escape people (especially with finals upcoming) is necessary.

If you’re constantly going from working to drinking there is not time for you to breathe or to be who you are. Human beings are much more and greater than the work they do — and however much we say otherwise, so are the students here.