We must address that mental illness exists in this college, especially now that midterms hover from this week into the next. Despite this pervasive problem, student anxiety, depression, and alienation are disregarded under the pressure of social, academic, and co-curricular events where it is necessary to focus on the future while ignoring the present.
In 2009–10, Cornell faced six suicides. In 2014, six Penn students committed suicide. A year later, Tulane lost four students. The University of Chicago, being of a similar caliber in academic rigor, has the same mental health issues. This, in part, as Rajiv Hurhangee’s op-ed so rightly notes, stems from the necessity to live by an overachiever model. The Reg, among libraries and study spots, is a social hub because work is so overly glorified that it is impossible to separate academic and social life. The University only seems to perpetuate this idea; on Valentine’s Day, the UChicago Twitter account posted “a few romantic spots” on campus. One of them was the Reg. While this was meant as a joke, it only furthers the idea that we can never leave the library, even on social holidays. Ultimately, all-nighters and a dependence on coffee are seen to be a representation of a desirable student, an ideal that will only carry on after we graduate into adulthood. The romanticism tied to overworking yourself in Harper, the stacks, or the Reg has become less of an exception to student life and more of an expectation.
Part of this expectation to overextend is due to the quarter system format. While most college students take four classes a semester for two semesters, most UChicago students take four classes a quarter for three quarters. This means an extra of four classes per academic year. The College’s unique Core Curriculum also necessitates the increased course load, as many classes cannot be placed out of with high A.P. scores. Structurally, it has come to the point where the Reynolds Club, our so-called student activities center, is less a center for genuine recreation and more of a center for studying and interviews—especially in the C-Shop.
But the problem mainly boils down to the fact that purpose is contradicting reality. We are meant to use student centers as a place for recreation and libraries as an option for studying, but resources are being conflated with expectations. The question of “Why am I here?” is overlapping with the question of “How am I doing?” as students start to determine their worth in terms of how they stack up against others. Social media in particular forces us to compare ourselves almost constantly. Kathryn DeWitt, who tried to commit suicide at the University of Pennsylvania, was one example of the detriment of social media. She noted that every post didn’t actually show the reality of a person’s life and made it seem like the poster always had it together. “Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends, and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.”
It is this confluence of academic achievement with any other social or co-curricular endeavors that so dangerously creates a mindset of work that students only propagate. “Where fun goes to die” does not exist without students making and thinking it exists, and the absence of campus-wide social events perpetuates that. Cristen Kromm, Columbia’s dean of undergraduate student life, noted that while “we can have ideas for fun events, but if students don’t buy into them, offering something that nobody shows up for isn’t great at all.” It is this culture of pressure and persistent comparison that fragments the much-needed support of an actual community space. At Stanford, this necessity to stack up against classmates and pretend to be okay is called the Duck Syndrome: a duck appears to glide calmly over water, when underneath its feet are desperately paddling.
While RSOs have addressed the existence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, there is still a wider, unspoken conversation that needs to be brought to light within the College. And, to make that conversation a reality, it requires an effort on not just the students’ part, but also on the college by actually building a campus-wide community that values the individual instead of the individual’s workload.