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Setting a new ‘baseline’

staff note

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who asked if her baseline mental health was abnormal. This word “baseline” stood out to me. A baseline seems to me to be something so foundational to identity, a requirement for daily survival. It is the normal, the unaltered state of existence you occupy. And when this baseline is out of whack, it impacts every waking moment of your life.

Our contemporary American culture has generated a fascinating paradox: an awareness of mental health struggles that simultaneously normalizes the problem. Most would consider this generation the most willing to acknowledge mental struggles, but often at the cost of recognizing the reality of them. And when, according to the American Psychological Association, 41.9% of college students live with anxiety and 36.4% with depression, this normalization leaves a large proportion of the student body to fall through the cracks.

Our culture creates a binary “us”-versus-“them” in the mental health world. Historically, this binary has always existed between those who face mental health issues and those who don’t, isolating mentally ill individuals from the bulk of society. But now the proportions have changed. Today, the “us” is the seeming 99% of the population who struggles with mental health, whereas the “them” is the extreme 1%, the most shocking cases of mental health issues. The only time our culture seems to acknowledge mental health as a reality is when it operates within this extreme realm, be it anything from suicide attempts to the recent mass shootings around the country.

When external factors, language and even jokes continually universalize mental struggles, people are culturally conditioned to disregard their disrupted baseline. It establishes a false acceptance of mental health problems as typical. It seems to complicate the classic nature-versus-nurture argument, changing what someone feels into something widely environmentally-dependent. This culture has thus transformed the attitude of “doing what everyone else is doing” to “feeling what everyone else is feeling.” We’ve made it hip to be mentally ill.

I read a philosophy book recently, titled “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through those Pearly Gates,” by Dean Martin Klein and Thomas Cathcart. In the novel, Klein and Cathcart write, “Jokes are funny that way: they can make a devastating point while defusing anxiety at the same time.” However, there is a danger to gallows humor, comedy used to alleviate the tension of taboo that is found all over social media and other online sources, which ultimately has the power to universalize negative thoughts as standard emotions.

The discourse seems to perpetuate and welcome the worst baseline. And when the baseline is disrupted, it feels nearly impossible to reset. Your normal is the world’s normal. Your bad thoughts are the world’s bad thoughts.

Perhaps it is cultural nihilism and, to some extent, defeatism that is promoting our normalization of mental health problems. We see the environmental issues, the earth burning, our political situation, and we take on this externally created feeling of doom as routine. Yet when our cultural baseline slips, there is no way to check our individual baseline — what was once the normal is lost to new cultural struggles and opinions. We are left to create internal baselines dependent on cultural norms and values.

At universities like Duke, even simply keeping a library open for 24 hours a day encourages students to obsess and live within this burnout culture, a world filled with anxiety, tension and stress as the norms. And when such a large quantity of the student body is facing these same problems, the negativity is interpersonally enabled. Anxiety and depression become a part of academic culture, intrinsic to its environment and success, rather than a problem to be solved. 

More than anything, this question of a baseline made me examine my own sense of normalcy. I realize it has transformed into something that is so difficult to check and examine. My own mindset and perspective is overrun by the cultural acceptance of unhealthy self-talk and cynicism. It is difficult to set a new baseline when the culture of this generation promotes pessimism guided by a general cultural awareness, but it is only when these cultural norms are addressed that setting a new baseline becomes a possibility.

Kerry Rork is a Trinity sophomore and Recess campus arts editor.

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