Op-ed: Mental health
Let’s actually talk
A friend of mine, an international student, told me that in his country, “They might say s— to your face, but they’ll never let you be lonely. Americans, on the other hand, are far more polite to you, but lack the warmth that I’m used to back home.”
Over the past month, my colleagues have been lambasting the state of Student Health Services. I’m here to affirm that the resources offered by this school don’t fix, and can sometimes exacerbate, the problems of mental health. However, I’m here to say that that problem exists because of the culture of this school.
Everyone at Washington University is nice. Except for a few spats here and there, no one says anything mean to each other. And everyone knows that. They also know that other vices—like ignoring, ghosting, isolating or doing anything else to someone in which one simply retracts their acknowledgement—are not nice. But again, they’re not mean.
Everyone has the right not to talk to whomever they like. No one should be required to interact with anyone for any reason. But in the words of a popular microeconomics professor at this school, this behavior is “smart for one, dumb for all.”
If this is kept at a low level, there aren’t any problems. Sure, because of the lack of interaction, some people may find themselves having to rely on school resources for the company of their peers. But as long as this phenomenon doesn’t metastasize, it’s sustainable.
The problem arises when this behavior is exhibited en masse. What’s worse about it is that it can’t be called out. Under no circumstances should it be socially acceptable to tell someone “stop ignoring me.” It’s the subject’s right to do whatever they want with their own body and time.
But it doesn’t change the fact that it hurts. It doesn’t change the fact that this behavior, and ones like it, scars people emotionally, when even a small minority engages in it. And it’s even worse when you feel compelled to do the same thing, whether that’s in reaction to someone else doing it or for myriad other reasons.
We all talk about mental health and how much we care about it. But we never sit with lonely people at Bear’s Den. We ignore people we find annoying. We cut people off instead of discussing problems we might have with them or them with us. And we certainly never engage with people whom we’ve never met. And if we want to have an honest dialogue on how not to just improve mental health resources on campus but mental health itself, we first need to be honest. And then we need to change.
It’s the little things. Getting brushed off. Getting condescended to. Looks. Body language. I’m not asking that people suppress these small facts of life. I’m asking something more. I’m asking that they change themselves and, as a result, the culture of this school.
This is going to be hard. I’m asking that over 7,000 people change themselves for a problem that not all of them experience at the same intensity, in the same way or at all. But it can start with checking in with people. With interacting with new people. With including people. With being honest with each other. With communication.
This is going to be gradual. Changes in culture normally take decades, even for small numbers of people, because they require changes in habit on the individual level. Old habits die hard.
This is going to be worth it. To quote my friend again, “I don’t remember any of my friends back home dealing with depression.” Happiness, above all, stems from human interaction and inclusion, while mental illness spawns from the lack of both. When deprived of those crucial resources, people turn wherever they need to. Lack of sleep. Drugs. Self-harm. The list goes on.
And Student Health Services can help with that, but so can we. The fact that it can take weeks to schedule an appointment with a therapist demonstrates that we need to look out for each other. Let’s start redefining what it means to be a part of the Wash. U. community.