(Mentally?) Healthy Devils

Finally, it’s happened. Hi there winter, reintroduce yourself to North Carolina. To be honest, the old Southern belle’s not very glad to see you—you two don’t meet for all that long—and she much prefers autumn’s crisp, vigorous afternoons to your icy, sickly nights.

Inevitably, though, and whether we like it or not, winter ushers in a spate of bad tidings in the form of aches, sniffles, sneezes, coughs, fevers, and other pesky seasonal afflictions. Upstanding universities, such as ours, make accommodations for these widespread woes, offering flu shots, student health services and an oft-used, maybe-abused “Get Out of Jail Free” card named the Short-Term Illness Notification Form. See how well we handle our illnesses?

Of course, responding to physical ailments is straightforward. Physical disease is transparent (just try to stifle every single urge to sneeze). When you get sick, you get medicine. Then you get better.

Not so much the case with the mental illnesses—severe depression; eating, anxiety and mood disorders; and their ilk—that nowadays plague college students at increasingly higher rates. Looking around our student body, you’d be hard-pressed to point to symptoms to reveal that much more than our immune defenses are crashing down on us as the semester races toward its expiration date.

Our infamous “work hard, play hard” mindset permeates so convincingly that we might all come off as perfectly and effortlessly balanced robot-hedonists.

Yet according to the 2009 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, more students than ever before are seeking help for more serious psychological problems than ever before. In the 2008-2009 academic year, more than one in every ten college students went in for counseling at their school.

Data from the latest run of American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA-II) paints a disturbing picture of mental health among undergraduates. Within the last 12 months, startling proportions of students endured the following distressing emotions: felt things were hopeless (45.6%), felt exhausted (not from physical activity) (80.1%), felt very lonely (56.4%), felt overwhelming anxiety (48.4%).

All of this turmoil festering below the feigned well-being of our college years—sicknesses borne not of body but of mind—and why?

Speculations vary as to the reason these numbers are so high and still increasing. Biologically, cases of mental illness usually present from the teenage to the mid-twenties years. The prevalent prescription of psychiatric medications may have made it more possible some students to go to college who wouldn’t previously have had the option.

Or perhaps college is just a time of stress and difficulty as young adults leave the comfort of home, adjust to the new freedom and lonesomeness of living by themselves and grapple with the pressure of future career plans. Duke, especially, is a pressure cooker set to churn out success stories: humanitarians, investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, scholars. Unfathomable amounts of pressure and expectation are piled onto the shoulders of high-achieving students.

And yet the ideal Duke undergraduate is one who manages this burden with ease, walks a clean line of accomplishment between matriculation and graduation and comes out unscathed on the other side. To admit hesitation or stumble under the burden is to have somehow deviated from the accepted path. There’s a shame that surrounds seeking help from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) on campus. At Duke, you can work hard, and you can play hard, but you can’t falter.

Isn’t there something baffling about this set-up: a disconnect between the strain of the circumstance and how we’re supposed to glide right over it?

To put it another way, we all know that the common cold is caused by an external agent—a virus or bacteria—triggering an immune response and resulting in disease. What if we saw mental distress in the same light, as a phenomenon influenced by an environment that promotes psychological illness?

I don’t mean that we should blame Duke’s emphasis on achievement for our woes—of course, other factors and explanations fit toward explaining the phenomenon. But neither should we blame depression, anxiety, and other mental concerns on a flaw in those affected.

It would do us good to admit that being here does in a sense breed psychological problems, that Duke’s undergraduate culture can pose a threat to the mental health of students.

If we viewed mental distress the way we view physical distress, there would no longer be a stigma attached to visiting CAPS, or in admitting to experiencing the same fears and anxieties as a large proportion of our peers.

As winter lays waste to our immune defenses, it’s worth noting: According to the CDC, 5-20% of the population is infected with the flu each year. According to the ACHA-NCHA-II, 30.7% of college students have within the last year “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” The first is a physical knockout; the other, the second, a mental one. Both deserve equal attention, recognition and therapeutic efforts.

Shining Li is a Trinity junior. This is her final column of the semester.


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