September 10 is World Suicide Awareness Day, which we utilize as a time to reflect on mental health issues affecting students on campus. Many students during their Duke careers feel isolated amongst their peers, plagued with unsettling transitions and burdened with educational expectations. For incoming first-years, new environments create stressors in unpredictable ways. For outgoing seniors, potentially-uncertain future plans can initiate uncontrollable anxiety. Converging pressures from each facet of life tend to accumulate with time, and many students feel as if they are uniquely suffering on a campus that brings others joy.
Peer group exclusion only perpetuates feelings of isolation for students who left stable high school relationships to forge new bonds in college. Students may experience this rejection formally during application processes from clubs, auditions for performance groups or rush for living groups and Greek life. Since many students experience formal rejection for the first time in college, they begin to develop feelings of inadequacy. Moreover, social exclusion manifests itself in subtler ways. Differences in socioeconomic status, physical appearance, gender, sexuality, and race can appear as a mark of otherness, making integration into a community exceedingly difficult. For students on the peripheries of groups they had hoped to join, looking in from outside only adds to the insecurities and feelings of loneliness that they may feel already.
Aloneness augments problems during other pivotal transitions in a student’s life. College brings an exploration of identity and sexuality that can be extremely exhausting and confusing for many. Deep personal uncertainty coupled with an overbearing workload from classes and an adjustment to a new campus climate can force people to mask the pain they feel in order to avoid further distancing themselves from their peers. Some students may arrive on campus with preexisting mental health issues and, soon into their undergraduate years, realize that coping mechanisms they utilized in the past no longer serve them. These are all valid and common experiences on campus.
Seeking a healthy relief for pain, depression or other negative feelings is normal and encouraged. Students often turn to mental health professionals when faced with a wide variety of environmental stresses. Despite common misconceptions perpetuated by media, therapy is often a personalized process, including more than simply discussions. Therapy can be viewed as a brainstorming session involving a more goal-oriented approach depending on its form. At Duke, personalized therapy can be accessed by students in a few key ways. We point students toward on-campus resources such as CAPS—despite any reservations we have expressed in the past—and the Duke Medical Center Psychiatric services if students choose to utilize their student health insurance. For further resources, students can venture off campus to psychologists and psychiatrists in the community.
We encourage students to seek medical professionals best suited to their needs, understanding that this may require visiting a few different therapists at first. To help with this process, student groups on campus should continue to push against the stigmatization of mental health issues by aggregating recommendations to community psychologists and psychiatrists to serve as resources for others. CAPS can also facilitate this process by helping to gather potentially-anonymous testimony from students who may have found success with the help they sought off campus. To students who are trudging through the everyday, accumulating stress with each class or relationship, do not let these feelings weigh you down.
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