An appeal to stop normalizing mental distress in students
I was speaking to a friend the other day who was struggling with her doctoral thesis. She was worried about the importance of what she’s doing, where it might take her, why she wasn’t being as productive as she just knew she could be, all in the midst of pressing family issues that were further undermining her faith in herself and her work. I found myself remembering and sharing how I too had, through the seven years of my doctoral program, struggled with near-daily anxiety and periods of intense depression, where it felt to me as though nothing would ever be alright again. I was certain that my prospects were bleak, a significant part of my young life had been wasted in the pursuit of nothing important and that it might have been better if I had chosen pretty much anything else to do with my life - something that did not make my question myself so much. I often found myself paralyzed, unable to focus, read, write or engage with my work.
Moments of confidence, though infrequent, presented themselves here and there. Buoying on them, and the support of a loving family (I was - am - lucky to have that), I was able to eventually see my work through to the end. More importantly, I was able to realize, for better or for worse, that I had to pick myself up and “just do”. I realized also, ironically, that though I was surrounded by accomplished academics, there was not a single empathetic voice that could help make me feel soothed emotionally, or guide me practically. Each time I did try and reach out, it was brushed aside. “we’ve all been through this”, I was told. “It’s a part of the process.” “It’s normal.” It never helped me to hear this. Not once.
It dawned upon me that there were some deeply disturbing flaws in our system that rejected the notion of a student’s mental health, while steadily contributing to its worsening. It was a silent, invisible toxicity that seemed to be woven into the fabric of the system.
A quick search on the internet will tell you that graduate students are the most depressed academic group in the world. Another search will tell you how the Indian youth - our academia focused youth - has ranked the highest in the world on scales of depression and suicide indices. We have normalized the struggles and high intensity stress that students on all levels feel they must go through to “feel successful”. It has become an ordinary part of the process to want to pull one’s hair out, to want to quit, run away, or harm oneself. Our academic world seems to espouse an “unnatural selection” where survival - and thus success - are equated with withstanding immense stress. The others are dismissed as weak or mentally unfit. The more that is overcome, the higher the feeling of worth and the shinier the imaginary badge of honor.
The system itself is so shiny and alluring - so full of promises of providing the best education, the best pathways to a glamorous future and the highest “ego boost” both for us and our families - that it took me a while to realize how it indoctrinates you with the same toxic principles that promise the same convoluted experience of “success”. I went through my seven years, always toiling, always waiting for this elusive feeling of success, but never once experiencing it.
This is perhaps why, though I write against this very meaning of success, a small part of me continues to blame myself for never knowing it; I remain certain that I did not do enough.
When I shared this with my friend, she expressed what seemed like genuine surprise at my struggles with self-confidence, anxiety and clinical depression. She remarked, “but you seemed so self-assured and put-together!” “So did you,” I said softly.
After thinking about this further, what I can say with reasonable confidence is that I am not the only student who labored under this delusion. No matter whether we are studying at an undergraduate or postgraduate level, whether we belong to the humanities or the sciences, we each make bold attempts to walk with our heads held high in faux-confidence, ready to “win”, no matter what our inner turmoil. Sharing this turmoil might mean admitting weakness. And sometimes we don’t share because we don’t know who will listen – truly listen. All this entire setup does is make the others believe that we’re absolutely fine. And so, we each battle on alone, while struggling similarly and simultaneously.
The student’s task is to learn, grow, find herself, create, innovate, learn to lead. Instead, within this system, we fall into the spiral of fighting for one mark; half a mark even, to attend all the classes and then some, then join extra-curricular engagements, have a social life, homework, lab work, internships. And amid all of this, we have the usual but necessary concerns of youth. We might worry about our futures, our careers, or our families who might be depending on us to excel, earn money and so on. We might - and perhaps must - be excited and nervous about experiencing love, maybe a life away from home where we can make our own rules, establish lifelong friendships and challenge ourselves professionally and personally to test and prove our mettle. We might also be worried about difficult personal or familial situations.
As we - and the entire system - reify this meaning of what it means to be a student, we lose other ways of being, other ways of learning and teaching, other ways of feeling and being successful or productive. The focus is so myopic, that we often lose our place in the powerful collective we have the potential to form as students, with each other and with our professors. Professors and staff, mired by their own pressures, reinforce this system too. Everyone forgets that students are more than students, and that even our professors and administrative staff must have their own difficulties. No doubt, on campus, these roles are paramount, but I do wonder if there is a way to create pockets of compassion, while still fostering, say, healthy competition? Can students be allowed to experience the highs of success while learning to ground themselves in humility, and learn to treat failure with kindness so that they may try again? Can we each learn to listen to our friends when they’re struggling with as little judgment as possible, and receive the same compassion in return? I would be very surprised, and will challenge it with confidence, if someone were to claim that they never felt the need to talk about their struggles. I will say with equal certainty that many would have tried and received unhelpful platitudes in return: brush it off, move on, this stuff happens.
It is in our basic humanity to connect with others. A disconnect from those we love, cherish and feel safe with is at the root of much of our emotional distress. No, our institution does not have to fulfill all our needs for emotional security. Some of it will come from family, and some from our own efforts to make good friends and partners. Some of it will come from systemic changes, some of which we ourselves will have to initiate, like raising our voices against that which violates our sense of peace or hurts our ability to persevere. A lot of it will come from our ability to approach the person who hasn’t left their hostel room for a long time, or who performed poorly on a test, and gently ask them if they’d like to talk about it, or have a cup of tea with them in silent solidarity.
Some support should certainly come from the administration. This can be through service provision such as a student counseling center which houses several trained psychotherapists as well as psychiatrists, where anyone (even teachers and staff!) can walk-in for some therapeutic support in a safe, confidential manner. The professionals at the center must make efforts to make themselves visible, available and approachable, and involve themselves deeply in the lives of the students such that they may be experienced as a relevant and reliable source of support. This center must not exist just because someone raised a flag about its absence, but rather whose presence and facilities must indicate the institution’s commitment to the mental well-being of everyone on campus. It must be equipped to provide students support when they feel alone, low, unsafe, confused, heart-broken, humiliated, bullied, teased, and worried.
Further, this commitment to the well-being of students should reflect in taking larger steps such as creating a consistent calendar of professional seminars or workshops that teach us how to bolster our mental health or in intimate efforts such as a high-ranking officer checking up personally on a student who may have shared a difficulty in her home. This commitment is also reflected in allowing students and faculty to take a “mental health day” when they feel the need to reset, no questions asked. It is found in teaming up with qualified mental health professionals of various kinds to make space in their schedules to provide therapy to students at costs subsidized by the institute. It could even be found in creating a fund dedicated to achieving these and other ideas. In essence, an institute can be said to be committed to the well being of its students when it makes an active effort to bolster the resilience of each student, provides support when they feel overwhelmed and takes responsibility to ensure that there are services and resources to cater to those needs. This will allow students to work hard, achieve, innovate, lead and create internal and external resources that will last for life, without sacrificing the feeling of emotional wellness. While we will all still definitely feel horribly stressed or anxious, say, before exams, or before placements and so on, this is only acceptable and “normal” when it is short-lived, and the student can cope, whether by her own resources, institutional support or a combination of the two.
I feel compelled to add that prioritizing mental health, kindness and compassion does not indicate a compromise in the pursuit of excellence. It is simply a shift in perspective, a different pathway of getting there that does not normalize – and certainly does not valorize – unbearable anxiety, sadness, worry and stress as an acceptable part of the process. There is no rulebook that says competition may only exist without compassion, or that one will never succeed unless they have been the most anxious they could ever be, and that they may only thrive once they have been broken down. These are not rites of passage and surviving them does not merit badges of honor. I appeal to the institution to stop normalizing and glorifying such struggles for students and for professors. Those who have experienced say, depression and anxiety or any form of severe mental distress will tell you that their success (however they define it) has nothing to do with these trials by fire. They will have succeeded in spite of these obstacles, not because of them.
I appeal also to students to not wait for a systemic change. Take it upon yourself to learn how to increase your own mental health quotient and that of those around you. You can go large (say, organize a day of awareness or learn skills to cope with stress) or act on a more intimate level, (say, learn the skill of listening to others with kindness, or learn how to spot the signs of mental distress in oneself and others.)
We and the institution are the very system we speak of and challenge. There is no better way than to create this change together. We are each as strong as the people we support and the fabric of compassion we create amongst ourselves.
By Nivida Chandra. Nivida Chandra is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Psychology, HUSS, IIT Delhi. Illustration by Suhani Gupta.