As I looked out into campus, I saw the English Gothic architecture around me and let thoughts of my future twirl around in my head. I had become the center of a seemingly utopian universe where I was the sun and opportunity spun around my existence. All of the people in passing were contagiously happy. It was exciting, beautiful, and tragic all at the same time. For underneath every perfect atmosphere lies some sort of unfortunate shortcoming.
This shortcoming that holds many of us back seems to fall under the category of mental health or mental illness. According to a study from the National Alliance of Mental Illness, “one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 experience mental illness in a given year.” Given that this is the age of most college students, it is not surprising that many people struggle with mental illnesses or mental health, but treating these ailments are more difficult, and they are often dealt with less than they should. From an outsider’s perspective, BC students exhibit a high level of being put together that does not seem to hold such a precedence at many other colleges.
The student body here seems to be made up of people with a direction, people who know who they are and exactly how they will implement themselves in the world post-grad. In a single photograph of Boston College, the depression, anxiety, addiction, grief, and the like is very easily overlooked by the motivated, self-regimented, academically driven individuals that crowd the frame. In this superficial outlook, there seems to be no place for any form of a lesser well-being. Conversations about the mental well-being of students are often few and far between and instead, awareness is swept under the rug or overlooked as a temporary feeling of unrest. “If I talk about my struggles with mental health I just feel like I’m not as put together as my peers,” one student from the Class of 2020 said. “My struggles shouldn’t make me feel weak but I don’t feel like it is an appropriate topic to bring up sometimes,” she continued. In my experience, most of the conversation we have about mental illness is a diversion away from confronting it. Much of our culture, especially on campus, either tries to downplay the symptoms of mental illness or casts irrational judgment on those who we think could be experiencing something of the sorts.
Ironically, this is opposite to how our culture reacts to physical ailments. Body image standards in media have triggered mental illness in an alarming number of college-aged women. But instead of seeking to eliminate the unrealistic size-zero ideal, our society has nearly normalized it. Our culture praises the body-chasers, the “fit” subculture that, healthily or unhealthily, has the “perfect” diet and the “perfect” body image. The mental aspect of this “ideal-image pursuit” is often lost in the calorie counting, weight loss, and tangible “progress.” We forget that anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating are side effects of prevailing mental illness. Why is it more normal to starve yourself than to confront our culture in lieu of our combatting emotions? For some reason, exerting physical harm on our bodies is easier than displaying vulnerability. But still, societal norms exert their control and the daunting cycle continues.
This strive for an ideal body image influences people to make quick changes by working out and eating healthy, just to meet a societal standard. We take necessary steps to fix our bodies when they need healing or taking care of, but those same urgent steps are not taken with mental illness. Is Boston College fostering an environment where physical injuries or illnesses are dealt with at a quicker rate than mental health issues? When a student athlete gets injured in a game they are immediately placed into physical therapy at sports medicine. When a student has strep throat or a sinus infection, they would never question going to health services to get medication. Why is it with mental health that we mask our vulnerabilities and deal with our sufferings alone?
Conversation about the mental health of our students on campus must be sparked. The mentality that mental illness is a foreign concept existing only to those that are “broken” in some way is so wrong. In fact, I have yet to meet someone, a real authentic human being that has not been broken in some way. Our brokenness is our substance, it is in every way just as much a part of who we are as our successes and accomplishments. Brokenness is, in its very nature, absolutely brilliant for the way it forces us to navigate ourselves in depth.
Express this vulnerability. Challenge your roommate, your best friend, your brother or sister to be vulnerable. Tell your best friend to go to therapy, go to therapy yourself. Therapy has been proven to help many people go through mental health and stress issues. One deterrent that makes students not want to go to therapy is that they will appear weak or that they aren’t going through enough struggles to go. Therapy is to help those who need an extra hand and those that need an open ear to listen to them. There is nothing that makes you weak by going to therapy. People do not have a choice in having a mental illness, but do have a choice in perpetuating the stigma.
Many students are looking for conversation, but don’t know where to find it and it’s hard to contribute to a conversation that may not exist in a current social circle. It doesn’t take a grand gesture to be vulnerable. I would argue that vulnerability has a domino effect when it strikes a culture full of people with similar strengths, weakness, and fears.
So give therapy a try—there is something glorious in learning how to manage the complexities of our minds. There is no glory in ignorance.
University Counseling Services: 617-552-3310