One night, in the midst of a late-night Hollows study room cram session, my friend, entirely unprompted, proceeded to crawl on the floor and hide underneath the table. Moments later, my two other friends and I had joined her (masks on, of course), marvelling at the absurdity of our lives and the mustachioed loaf of bread artfully illustrated on the wall-length whiteboard.
At some point, however, we were forced to rise to our feet and confront our giant workload. I, for one, boasted of the likeliness that I’d be up until 4 a.m., squeezing out that last ounce of productivity from my already-juiced brain. For someone who emphasizes the importance of rest and self-care, I am immensely hypocritical.
My admission to Duke was contingent upon devaluing my mental health to achieve more, to produce more, to be more. Enrolling in college only strengthened my prioritization of productivity, and I am not the only student aboard the sinking ship of workaholism. When I ask virtually anyone on campus how they are feeling, the answers range from ‘stressed’ to ‘anxious’ to ‘I-haven’t-gotten-out-of-my-bed-all-day’ to simply ‘mental-breakdown.’
This swath of self-reported, informally-surveyed peers are more representative of students on college campuses than one might think. Studies of mental health on campus are limited, but the American Psychological Association found that only 16 percent of counseling clients in college mental health centers reported severe psychological problems in 2000; this number rose to 44% in 2010. Little scientific background is needed to predict that this year’s rate of severe psychological problems will be much higher.
A variety of factors spur the mental health crisis, but two main sources of anxiety and suicidal thoughts include extreme performance demands and traumatic experiences, which are destructively intertwined.
Many of us claim lack of preparation when asked to confront the massive material and racial inequalities produced by capitalism; we also don’t consider how this mindset affects our mental health. Psychiatrist, writer and former Oxford literary scholar Ian McGilchrist notes in his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: “Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity.” When applying this analysis to a college context, the crisis becomes almost predictable: students, at the crux of our transition between childhood and adulthood, are now pressured to produce more and more in order to earn a living wage, and we lack community-based systems of care to healthily cope with trauma.
I don’t know how many times I have been told that to graduate Duke means to make money. Somehow, a degree from a PWI based on a system of meritocracy dripping in racism and classism grants me a golden ticket to become a changemaker, an elite, a leader—a person who does things. This message is not only a generalization of students’ experiences before and after college; arrival at Duke also communicates our uniquely superior status while persuading us to work ourselves to exhaustion as justification for our said uniqueness. If we produce papers and work and research and graduate with honors and a job offer, we’re set. We’re people who do things. The alternative is barely even considered.
The second half of the equation amplifies the first. If production is key to our success, so too must individualism be: we cannot succeed without out-producing our friends and classmates.
The drive to be successful at all costs that I’ve seen within myself, my peers and Duke administration increases isolation and decreases all forms of community connection. Rather than investigating external factors or providing an outlet of compassion, Duke blames the problem on the individual. An issue brief from the Center For Health Care Strategies reports that “Trauma- informed approaches to care shift the focus from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” “What happened to you?” is a collectivist approach, viewing trauma and harm through a holistic lens, whereas “What’s wrong with you?” is individualistic, alienating—both are values grounded in capitalism. Social inequality is a major determinant of mental health, and if Duke and other universities were to ask, “What happened to you?” they’d have to admit that they played a role in this happening. So Duke, more often than not, asks the second question. And during a global pandemic, the neglect from our institution is more and more apparent with each passing day.
For example, even this year, CAPS limits the number of appointments a patient can have; a student is not guaranteed an on-campus support system long-term.
“It’s lazy. I think it shows that they are checking off the box of saying that they care. And then when mental health disasters start occurring more frequently on campus, they’ll be like: but we had all of these resources,” Duke Junior Olivia Reneau says.
Sometimes Duke doesn’t even pretend to try. “[Professors] will be like...I know it’s a really hard time for everyone, and take care of yourself. In the same email, they’ll make jokes about how they’re giving much more work,” Olivia says about her course-load during the pandemic.
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It’s obvious that Duke does not invest in our wellbeing. And even when self-care is mentioned, it almost always exists within the context of production and commodification. Most of my professors frame self-care as a break to merely reset and become an even more contributing member of society. In fact, self-care has become an industry itself: we’re advertised face-masks and online shopping to cure us of our deeply-rooted mental issues. This is reminiscent of a self-fulfilling prophecy: we do more, burn out more, spend more, isolate more—all to graduate and become part of a workforce, to become even more entrenched in what we are told is just and satiating and good.
I see the world burning and people dying en masse from the systems I am told are just and satiating and good. I don’t want to listen anymore. I don’t want to find ways to minimize my grief at the expense of seeing the truth. As Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Maybe the question then becomes: who is actually sick: us, or Duke; us, or society?
Personally, I think this statement is rhetorical.
I’ve realized now, credited to the labor of Indigenous and Black Queer folks (The Nap Ministry provides many incredible resources), that our mental health relies on mutual and collective liberation, which, accordingly, guarantees the abdication of grind culture. I want Duke, instead of posting a saccharine message on social media for World Mental Health Day, to give us days off of school, confront its white supremacist past, improve the care and ensure the safety that so many of us desperately seek. This could look like listening to Black students’ needs and demands and abolishing DUPD (at a minimum). It could look like increasing wages of its workers (yes, that’ll mean cutting some of CEO of DUMAC Neal Triplett’s 3.4 million dollar salary). It could look like monetarily investing in more long-term systems of care for students, especially students of color.
Duke Senior Valeria Yin offers adding a question as simple as “how are you doing?” to the SymMon App that we fill out every day. Or, Olivia suggests, if Duke admin is worried about students partying off-campus during a predetermined break, slip in a few surprise breaks with no schoolwork during the middle of the week.
Especially now, during a pandemic with no breaks and an accelerated semester, it is so important to pay attention to our feelings, to hold each other close (or maybe at a 6-foot distance). We are like plants; we value nurturing and water and sunlight and sometimes soil.
So crawl under the table and curl up if that’s what you need to grow. Human bodies, like roots in the soil, are interconnected: we travel together, not one soul left behind.
Lily Levin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.