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Small acts, not sweeping initiatives, to end CMU stress culture

Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor
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Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among American people aged 25 to 34. Statistics show that about 1,100 American college students commit suicide every year, and one in ten American college students have made a plan for suicide. And the problem is only getting worse: the suicide rate among young adults aged 15 to 24 has tripled since the 1950s.

On March 29, 2016, two bright Carnegie Mellon students committed suicide, leaving those around them in astonishment and grief.

On a more personal note, one alumni from my high school and close friend of my many peers committed suicide in Feb. of this year.

Under this serious and crucial background, Carnegie Mellon enhanced its attention on mental health care by emphasizing its Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) program, bringing in mental health first-aid training days and activities such as Send Silence Packing, an exhibit of 1,100 backpacks that represent the college students who are lost to suicide every year, incorporating “Student Wellness” in most if not all class syllabi, establishing places like the Mindfulness Room.

But what’s the effect? Few students make appointments with CaPS for fear of being regarded as “mentally ill,” which is still a stereotype regardless of how many times the university tells students that asking for help is a sign of strength. Every mental health first-aid training this semester is held on a weekday and takes eight hours, making it impossible for most students to attend, and these trainings target only mental illness and substance abuse, leaving a huge gap in coverage for mental problems that most people don’t regard as illnesses. Students seldom read the “Student Wellness” section of class syllabi because it just seems irrelevant, and few professors spend time reading that section, as opposed to hours spent on explaining grading criteria over and over again. Most of the time few students are in the Mindfulness Room, and those who do either lie on the cushion and fall asleep or bring their work with them into the room, completely missing the initiative of “recover and inspire yourself,” as stated on its website.

It may also be surprising that many students who committed suicide actually didn’t have symptoms of typical mental illness. Many are shocked when they hear that their extroverted, friendly acquaintances commit suicide, replying with, “I never thought this would happen to them” or “But they were so optimistic!” or “They were so good in everything! How was that even possible?” Why would these seemingly hope-of- tomorrow students make these decisions that affects not only themselves, but also those around them?

The answer, for me, is peer pressure. At Carnegie Mellon, as opposed to many other institutions, most of the students work really hard, and are afraid of being surpassed by their peers in dimensions like grades, workload, course difficulty, research, internship, job, salary, and more. For many, their “heart is in the work,” but few relate this motto to its context.

This world-famous motto by Andrew Carnegie was announced in his letter announcing his determinedness to contribute all his efforts to build this university. Contrary to our situation now, no one was there to rival him. His heart was in the work not to surpass or keep up with others, but because he really enjoyed what he was doing and what he would achieve by doing it.

For most of us, however, it’s all about competition. When we hear that someone around us is attending the career fair this week, we naturally rush there so that we won’t feel left out or beaten, even if the fair is totally meaningless and boring for us. We choose the hardest courses and vow to get the highest GPA in class. When we see others come up with an interesting project, we stay up late to think of a better one.

I’m certainly not discouraging this spirit: it’s what motivates us to progress. However, too much of it distorts our primary cause of doing what we like. Without passion about the work itself, the work may turn out to be a tiring chore that we’re forced to finish so that others won’t look down upon us. A friend of mine who is very interested in computer science complained to me the other day that, “Everybody else is just too bright. Most of them come with a deep computer science background, and many have already built apps themselves. I feel so intimidated by their intelligence,” then, “I’m now beginning to reconsider my choice of major. Is this really suitable for me?” A first-year math major told me that she had to stay up till 2 a.m. just to be the first one to submit a homework that’s due next week.

When I told my friends in other universities about this, they often found it difficult to imagine and understand, and I replied, “Well, that’s our campus culture. That’s why we earn the most salary after we graduate.” But now that I come to think more deeply about it, this may not be the best thing possible. Although colleges were primarily established to hold class meetings, college life has long since transformed. Building social relationships, discovering and discussing our personal values and passions, learning to think logically as well as creatively — all of these are essential for a meaningful college life. Prioritizing work can be good, but our lives certainly shouldn’t revolve around work.

Accompanying intense competition is the phenomenon of students avoiding admitting to having a problem. This includes students continuing to work when not feeling well, keeping questions to themselves to be solved later, not asking for help when anxious, and constantly worrying that their “mask” of perfection will be unveiled. This in turn leads to even more serious problems, and as problems internalize, they root deeper, finally becoming non-erasable and unchangeable.

How can the university help with this? Mental illness treatments such as the First-aid programs miss the huge scale of students who aren’t necessarily ill, but still possess psychological discomfort, and temporary relaxation, like the Mindfulness Room, Project Smile, which sets up days to show kindness, Paws to Relax, a program that invites animals such as dogs to interact with students, or Picnic on the Cut, which gives students free rental of picnic mats, don’t solve the core of the problem, or, in a Chinese saying, “solves the symptoms but not the disease.”

The root of the problem, peer pressure, lies in campus culture itself, so it’s hard to change. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do. Administrators can help by offering to chat with students about their lives rather than immediately referring them to consultations or treatment with CaPS. Professors can help by encouraging teamwork in courses and activities by assigning team projects, encouraging presentations and discussions about students themselves through exercises and assignments, and encouraging students to explore their own fields of strength by providing various opportunities of research and activities. Students can help by kindly offering non-condescending help, asking our friends if they feel okay when we sense that they are down, and opening up discussions about them rather than us.

These steps may seem trivial, and are definitely not big changes such as the establishment of the Mindfulness Room, but remember, Rome wasn’t built in one day. True, this approach takes many more years to lay the foundation, but this slow shaping of campus culture is what will actually work to reduce student stress in the long term.

Having said this, I still appreciate the university’s effort at trying hard to mitigate the problem. All of us: administrators, professors, and students must work together to promote mental health for this institution as a whole. We can’t just sit there and hope for the best, or rely on only ourselves to make changes. We must stand up and create a better future together.