January 29, 2013

Surviving the winter

These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer student and the sunshine worker will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their school, but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of guy and girl.

I am talking, of course, about winter quarter.  You are not a true University of Chicago student until you survive your first.

Winter quarter, demon of our school year, has the unfortunate habit of coming too early and staying too long. Our fall enthusiasm has flagged. Work seems more daunting, and the sun is already down when we get out of class. The cold hurts our faces and blows through our clothes. (Oh, why didn’t we go to Stanford?) We argue with our roommates and get woken up at night by the clunk of radiators. Everyone is stressed and unhappy.

These common miseries and gripes create instant commonalities. When we all complain about the same things, we feel less alone. However, when these complaints are academic in nature, they may serve as a form of one-upmanship rather than something that brings us together. The student who complains about the difficulty of her classes also engages in a certain amount of moralizing, i.e. “I am morally superior because my classes are more difficult than yours.” In short, misery is normalized and expected.

Our culture of academic one-upmanship and the normalization of misery create an environment where students are not only discouraged from making healthy, proactive choices about their mental health, but are also taught to think that such unhappiness is a necessary part of life at the University of Chicago. In order to improve the mental health and happiness of students, we must create an environment where seeking help is not stigmatized. As a community, we must also take responsibility for each other and provide support for those who are having a hard time.

The biggest problem lies in our conception of the archetypal University of Chicago student. Such a student is brilliant, motivated by the life of the mind, and able to take anything that may be thrown at them. Unfortunately, this stereotype simply does not mesh with the reality that we are not machines designed to deal with the mental and emotional toll that our work may bring. We cannot read hundreds of pages, churn out problem sets, take exams, apply to internships, participate in RSOs, and deal with our emotional lives—all on too little sleep— without feeling any negative consequences.

Many people can just grit their teeth and get on with it. Those who cannot, or who have preexisting problems exacerbated by the stress of school, are often left to their own devices. Though there are certain University structures that are supposed to deal with student problems (e.g. Resident Heads in the housing system and counseling through Student Health Services), these are often not enough.

This is why we must take responsibility for our peers. We as students are more perceptive than any system created by the University could possibly be. We see each other every day and can notice changes in individuals’ behavior. We may not know exactly what is wrong, but we can tell that something is. We need to remind our unhappy friends that their unhappiness is not something that is expected of them. If we can lend a friendly ear, offer advice, or encourage them to get help, then fewer people will fall through the cracks.

Individuals must also try to take steps to improve their own mental health. A friend of my family who is a registered nurse told me, “People should be as proactive about their mental health as they are about their physical health.” Though this is far from reality for most people, it does underscore how little we think about our own mental health. Students should take note of their moods and their reactions to situations. If you feel sad, you should ask yourself why. If you have no answer, then that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Though occasional unhappiness is probably unavoidable at the University of Chicago, continual unhappiness should not be a mark of our education. We need to strive to create an environment in which it is perfectly fine to ask for help, and in which individuals who need help are supported by their peers. That way, we can all have a happier and healthier winter quarter.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.