I was going to write a post about how it seems like some of the most vocal advocates for mental health in schools today always seem to misinterpret the causes and stresses and motivations behind some of the issues students face, and attempt to paint their own mental health narrative in a broader stroke to make their own personal motivations and personal experiences more relevant. I was going to write that, but I realized halfway throughout that it would be difficult for me to talk about the same things without also having to draw my own experiences into play like a hypocrite. So instead I’m going to go in another direction.
This article, I don’t live here, I’m just visiting, recently started floating around my university. The author talks about her experiences with depression and mental illness at university, how it’s affected her outlook, the steps she’s taken to overcome it, and some final words. If it wasn’t clear by now, I have a problem with this article. I like sharing personal experiences; I do so on my blog. But too often she takes her opinions a step too far and frames her new knowledge as some sort of rallying cry for the mentally ill, and uses the mental illness excuse as a crutch to throw in the face of her educational failures. Moreover, with the mental illness crutch, she tries to preach against what she believes is the root cause of the manic depression, and the social stigma to work hard, and in the process becomes what she keeps rallying against, landing in an extremist position against the educational and university system. Her argument would be so much stronger without that criticism of the UW lifestyle, and without her gloating condemnation of the lifestyle. And as such, she jumps often between hard rallying cry and uncontroversial personal experience, making it harder to form a lengthy coherent response without me seeming unreasonable.
The quote that’s stood out to me the most is where I’ll start my article.
Taking three courses instead of five has not made me a lesser student; asking for an extension when my depression was at its worst is nothing to be ashamed about. Instead of gloating about how many all-nighters we pull each term or how we juggle six courses or how you spend 14 hours on campus each day, let’s gloat about having balanced lives and being happy.
I’m sorry, but yes, taking 3 courses instead of 5 is taking a reduced course load. It actually does mean you are a lesser student. What it doesn’t mean, though, and what I think she was really trying to say, is that it doesn’t make you a lesser person.
It is insane how easily and how often we seem to mix up those two concepts. We’ve all lived through being a kid. We’ve spent probably a quarter, even a third, of our lives totally dedicated to school, on learning, on working, on making the grade cut. We’ve spent 10, 20 years of our lives focusing around a scale, 0 to 100, F to A, striving for the top or figuring out our place on the line of averages. For the most part, for everyone who cares about them, we live and we die by them.
And so it’s incredibly easy to fall into a state of mind where you believe the quality of your person is partially determined by your performance in academics. And at this very moment you probably say to yourself, “no, not I, grades don’t matter to me”, while also thinking about the stress and pressure to succeed you’ve accumulated during school.
I’ve noticed that isn’t just a personal roadblock, but an issue with the education system. We’ve conditioned students to evaluate life by success or failure. We tell students that we must grade them on a scale of 60-100. And over time we start associate ourselves with our 60-100 mark that we’ve projected onto 0-100, so even if we get 80, we’re still only 50, just 50%. Average. And we constantly put down ourselves with that information, that unless we’re above 60%, 80%, 90%, we’re still below average, below the best, below human. And suddenly average isn’t even a goal, perfect is the goal, the only goal, and student life/human life becomes centered around trying to satisfy this craziness. And in my opinion, this is where the problems of mental illness arise, the very deep-rooted association of your person to your marks.
As you grow up and start getting out of school, the quality, “grade” of your life becomes harder to define, and the stress of not only achieving that grade, but the stigma associated with having a grade that repulses you, starts fading away – after all, you really not a mark. But while you’re in school, the constant stresses from our educational system can at times make you feel de-valued and useless. And this is also where I believe all the school resentment builds up from.
A lot of us come from backgrounds where we’ve done very well compared to our peers. Maybe we’re the top 25% of our class in high school, or even since we were in grade school. So taking the mental leap from being a top 10 student to being a top 50% student is a crazy hit to our ego that’s impossibly hard to sit with. We know it’s not actually possible for every top 25% student to still be top 25% (the math doesn’t add up :P), but it’s irrational otherwise this would be easy. We develop this crazy need to study hard, work harder, compete with others, get those grades, finish those assignments, push ourselves above our peers. And it drives a lot of students to continue a caffeine-addicted, adrenaline Red Bull fueled, late night, little sleep lifestyle in order to compete, even though that lifestyle isn’t only not sustainable, but there is a lot of evidence saying that the lifestyle isn’t even that productive anyways.
And another problem arises, where we convince ourselves that we are the exception. Yes, I can sustain a lifestyle with 4 hours of sleep, and while you tell me I can’t, I’ve been doing so and it’s worked out for me. It’s a high risk of burn out, but it’s also rewarding me with what I kind of want.
And all of that just leads us further and further away from positive self-reflection.
All of us juggle hundreds of different priorities between our lives, whether it’s to our family, family commitments, family issues, family expectations, to ourselves, our feelings of being valued, our feelings of being capable, our feelings of being human, our feelings of pushing ourselves, and so many more. All of us juggle these priorities, but the ones who hit that breakneck, mentally draining pace seem to miss the points of self-reflection. When we fail, we just fail again and again. When we miss an assignment because we’ve been mentally drained, we change nothing. When we can’t understand a concept, we try the same ways we’ve tried before the next time, and we’re surprised when it doesn’t work out.
We pretend we’re working a 100-hour school week, but in reality we spend a quarter of that time switching between Facebook or Reddit or Buzzfeed or whatever useless distraction. We kill ourselves working more intensely and we pride ourselves for being more optimal by starting an assignment earlier, yet we continually miss the real time optimizations.
Worst yet, we surround ourselves with the same influences and the same ideologies. Which wouldn’t be so bad except that we accept that this is the way the lifestyle works, and somehow lack the self-confidence, presence of mind, and brainpower to make up our minds ourselves – instead we let the poorer lifestyles seep into our lives.
That is why I have a problem with the article. The author has clearly been suffering from depression. But she, like the people she quotes in the article, tries place blame on problems outside of their own control, as though they have been the cause of their own pain. But in reality, Thousands of students face even more intense societal and parental pressures, and work harder and more actively – go talk to half of the brightest and most energetic, but socially active students how much their parents make or how they’re putting themselves through college. And ask them how they work and study, so they can keep up in class. Ask them how much they play, or how many breaks they have. And tell me that you’ve been doing a better job than they have when you have a mental breakdown. I’ve had mental breakdowns before. And over time I’ve realized I’ve been the one screwing up. Every time.
The mental illnesses, the depression, the pain and the struggles are real. And the causes? Much more within your reach than you realize.
It’s so very much important to realize that we are not infallible. We can make mistakes and we can fuck up and we can lead ourselves to dark, dangerous places. But it is just as equally important to recognize that just as we are the catalysts to our own recovery. One step at a time. You’re a lot stronger than you think.