Diagnosed with poverty

insane in the membrane

Over time, I’ve begun to realize the impact my shortcomings have at Duke. I think there was a sort of ignorance I’ve had to convince myself of many times during my life—that it does not matter where I’ve come from, that with enough hard work and determination I can achieve anything I want. 

Of course, there is something to be said for that, too. But perhaps truisms like these are what evoke resentment among those who, with all the hard work in the world, still haven’t achieved their desired result. There is a recurring belief among students at elite universities that winners have worked hard, while losers are simply lazy. In fact, according to a study from UMass, students in elite universities have learned to believe that their elevated social status is solely the result of hard work and intelligence, without acknowledging social forces like social class and cultural capital. This effectively ignores external circumstances contributing to an individual’s state; things that are beyond their control. I mean, which child has better odds at receiving an education from a high-ranked university: a minority student from a low-income, first-generation background attending an overcrowded and underfunded neighborhood public school, or one from a well-off and well-educated background attending a top-rated public or private high school?

Students’ strong belief in the impact of individual agency in success and failures not only ignores socioeconomic diversity in elite spaces, but also leads them to assume full responsibility for their outcomes. Tangentially, this sort of thinking led me on long paths of self-doubt regarding my mental health at Duke, framing my mental illness as an individual failure. Something that, with enough hard work and persistence I should be able to overcome because everyone else here is seemingly able to do. So, why not me?

Two days ago I posted in the Duke LIFE (Low-Income, First-Generation Engagement) Facebook group chat desperately asking if anyone was available to talk. In moments prior I had broken down following a phone call from my parents regarding my father’s ongoing health problems. I knew this. It killed me. I hated knowing my parents couldn’t afford health insurance. I hated knowing they’ve worked 80+ hour weeks at multiple minimum wage jobs for the majority of their lives for my siblings and I. I hated being here at this prestigious university surrounded by so many opportunities and privileges knowing my parents were still back home struggling to make ends meet—and who was I to talk to about all of this? 

It is no secret that 69% of Duke students come from the top 20 percent such that the median family income is $186,700. Meanwhile only 1.6% of students at Duke came from a poor family and became rich adults. These statistics are not the least bit consoling, but it is something I’ve given greater attention to during my time here. Feelings of helplessness and guilt due to my socioeconomic status are neither unfamiliar nor unique to me. There exists a certain disconnect among students from working-class backgrounds. In an effort to balance their placement within elite and non-elite communities, they ultimately never feel like a true member of either one. 

Gradually I have become more open with my struggles with mental illness. I figure if I talk about it in the same breath as I would any other illness, maybe I wouldn’t have to hide it anymore — and perhaps someone else may even be inspired to talk about their experiences, too. But oftentimes it is not just thoughts and diagnoses that affect our mental health. It is also our circumstances: homelessness, poverty, racism, unaffordable housing and healthcare, the list goes on. For me, it is the consequence of being a low-income first-generation student at Duke. 

However, I am not here to indulge in conversations of “who-has-it-worse”. Rather, I would like to highlight that people from working-class backgrounds are at far greater risk of mental illness than those from higher status backgrounds. In fact, a 2016 study from Duke University researchers suggested that low socioeconomic status might even change a person’s DNA and increase their chances of becoming depressed. On top of that, having a mental illness and being financially strapped further hampers an individual’s mental health in a discouraging circumstance. There is no easy way to tackle this issue. Perhaps one suggestion may be to further advertise ways low-income students may seek affordable mental health resources on campus, including access to transportation and different types of available therapies. Even something as thoughtful as keeping dining halls and dorms open during holiday breaks can make a difference. 

So, I will conclude with the irony of quoting the first line of The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” The same sentiments apply to criticisms of ourselves as well. Remember that we are all trying to work with the hand we were dealt. The complexities of mental illness are much more nuanced than the amount of effort we put into this world. And to those who come from low-income backgrounds and struggle with their mental health: know that you are only doing your absolute best in circumstances no clinical diagnosis could ever fully explain.

If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090. 

Bisma Suleman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, insane in the membrane, runs on alternate Fridays.


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