The author Jeffrey Eugenides, in his novel “The Marriage Plot,” once described college this way: “...everyone felt compelled to be upbeat... when everyone knew, in his or her heart, that this wasn’t how they really felt.”
Eugenides attended Brown University, but he might as well have been describing Duke. Masking vulnerability with false confidence is no mystery to Duke students. Indeed, we have coined our own term for the phenomenon: effortless perfection. After years of working at Counseling and Psychological Services, Gary Glass, CAPS assistant director for outreach and developmental programming, said many Duke students possess an unhealthy fear of expressing open and raw emotions, instead performing a polished, unflappable, but ultimately invented personas in their daily lives. The problem these days is not so much the stigmatization of mental health disorders, Glass noted. It is the stigmatization of vulnerability.
As next Sunday marks the beginning of national Mental Illness Awareness Week, it is a good time to consider the mental health of Duke’s campus holistically. That means looking outside the boundaries of the psychologist’s office. Specifically, addressing student mental health means addressing the cultural problems deeply entrenched in the expectations, interactions and mores of the Duke community. The problems to which CAPS often attends—academic-related stress, depression, eating disorders, social anxiety and so forth—arise from the tension between how students, pressured by the seemingly expert put-togetherness of their peers, think they should feel and how they actually feel.
We agree that the solution lies in connecting struggling students to each other, thus making students realize they do not have to face mental health issues in isolation. “I often wish my 10:30 appointment could meet and talk to my 2:30 appointment,” Glass said. He suggests that, with Duke’s culture of invulnerability, his patients often feel they are the only ones afflicted by a certain problem. In reality, they are dealing with similar problems as their classmates and dormitory neighbors, and knowledge of this fact would make them feel less lonely.
Although patient confidentiality remains intact, CAPS and other student groups are looking outside the consultation room to improve campus dialogue about mental health. For example, the Duke chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms, a national organization dedicated to increasing mental health awareness, will again erect their “Dreams and Fears” tree in Perkins Library where students can share their candid feelings. Peer For You, a website where Duke students can anonymously ask and give help on mental and physical wellness issues, is slated to launch this month. CAPS is also partnering with more organizations, including Common Ground, Project Build and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, to ensure that students know they do not have to deal with mental health issues alone.
Duke’s culture of invulnerability will not be eradicated quickly. But we believe that continuing to “treat the water,” in Glass’ words, is the right approach. In other words, we should seek to view mental health issues through the prism of environmental factors rather than individual dysfunction. Once Duke fosters more spaces, formal and informal, where students can talk about their emotions openly and honestly, we will all feel less alone.