Faye Wang, Pomona ’13
Trigger warning for grief.
I was asked to write about mental health on campus because I was among a group of students who started a website (5cwereallmadhere.tumblr.com) that asked for community submissions of their experiences on campus. Outside of that website, I do not have much authority to be writing about mental health, on campus or otherwise. My only real qualification for this piece is that I happen to experience mental (ill-)health on campus. Which is to say that many other people are just as qualified to speak on the subject as I am.
In deference to that fact, I will be drawing primarily from my own experiences while also taking some cues from the submissions to our website. Those submissions have spurred a lot of thinking about mental health on my part. So I would like to take the time to acknowledge all those submissions here.
The range of things that fall under the umbrella term “mental health” is expansive, and I could not personally imagine being able tackle it all. Because I am drawing from my own experiences, I will only being writing about the experiences that I am most familiar with. For me, that means mood disorders.
Mood disorders invariably make me think about happiness.
Happiness is a condition of the Pomona College experience. Another day, another list proclaims the general state of satisfaction on campus. But, happiness is elusive, difficult to define adequately. Two sentences into this paragraph, I’ve already begun telling lies about happiness: I’ve conflated happiness with satisfaction.
It’s strange. I’ve only ever managed to enjoy anything when I began to let go of the idea of happiness. I’m not arguing against happiness here (though I have made attempts to do so elsewhere), and I won’t claim that happiness is undesirable (a claim that I do not yet have a coherent opinion on). But, I do believe for certain that the idea of happiness, the expectation of happiness, is damaging. In an environment where we are constantly told how happy we are, happiness has become an imperative.
This insight may not be very original or helpful. Emotions are mercurial, and I think most of us recognize that we are not going to be happy all the time. On the other hand, I believe the will to happiness is indicative of a larger problem on campus. To a certain extent, the range of emotions we are allowed to feel on campus is restricted. I know there are some things it is okay to feel on campus. It’s okay if you’re not happy. It’s okay if you’re stressed. Depending on who you are, it might even be okay that you’re angry (because, let us recognize the ways in which anger is gendered and racialized).
It would be tedious to compile a list of emotions allowed on campus to prove my point. What I can do quickly is say that I know that there are certain things that I, as a student, am not supposed to feel here, certain things that are supposedly at odds with my identity as a student.
One of those things has been grief.
Grief is not exactly a mood disorder, but it definitely impacts my relationship with mood disorders. It is also the part of my experience with mental health on campus that I am most willing to talk about publicly. This comfort may itself be illustrative of the very point I am trying to make. It’s easier to put a name to grief, even if I felt like it is unwelcome here. Some things don’t get the luxury of being nameable.
To make this more clear: my father died in the summer before my sophomore year, and an administrator strongly suggested that I take a leave of absence.
I understand that it’s important to have the option to take a leave of absence and to offer it under the appropriate circumstances. But at the time, it felt like my grief did not have a place on campus. Grief is supposed to be away.
I decided not to take a leave of absence. I love my mother, but we moved halfway across the country after I left high school. A leave would have meant that my mother would go to work, and I would grieve to the empty house where my father started dying. At school, I had friends to see and school to occupy me. Being on campus meant a commitment to academics on my part. The academy is many things to many people, but let’s agree that its stated primary purpose (almost tautologically) is academics. It helped me to commit to academics, to remind myself that I had other things in my life. I needed an anchor, and I found it in my identity as a student.
In a way, being on campus was the only place I could think about grief without it being overwhelming.
Of course, campus may not be the best place for all people at all times. Sometimes a leave of absence is the best option. And I won’t say it wasn’t difficult at times, that grieving never got in the way of my commitments as a student, but it was definitely better than the alternative. So when a student decides, when I decided, that being here as opposed to being there is in their best interest, lack of faculty or administrative support only makes a difficult situation more difficult.
I was lucky. I remember vividly reading a short story for class that focused on the loss of a parent. I was crying so hard I lost a contact lens (I found it folded under my eyelid later that night). I knew I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the class without breaking down, that I might have disrupted the class environment. My professor was very understanding, and I was excused.
Not all of my peers have had such luck. One submission to our website says, “Some professors at the 5Cs don’t take mental illness seriously. They refuse to see it as a disability (even if I explicitly state it that way). Rather, they wonder aloud how such a smart student could be depressed.” As if intelligence and scholarship could not or should not share space with depression and vice versa. As if one must be neurotypical to reach coherence in their identity as a student.
Our different experiences show that there is a wide range of compassion and understanding on the part of professors. I do not want to use my example to negate the experiences of my brave peer who made that submission to our website. My peer’s experience is not isolated. Other submissions to the website cited lack of confidentiality as well as a general lack of understanding as it relates to issues of mental health on the part of professors in particular. Instead, I want to point out how tragic it is that I have to use the language of luck when describing the search for compassion and understanding on these issues.
Grief shouldn’t have to happen elsewhere. Depression shouldn’t contradict a history of academic achievement.
Campus culture is not always an easy thing to change, but it is easier when everyone affected (and that means everyone) is involved. I would like to invite the campus community, faculty, administrators, staff, and students to engage in this conversation if they are comfortable.
And if these things are frightening to talk about, I think that’s why we created 5cwereallmadhere.tumblr.edu. Talking feels overindulgent. It’s a luxury. In a society where therapy has become institutionalized as a profession, it feels cheap when we do not pay for it. Worse, sometimes it feels like no one is willing to listen at all. So I want to thank you for reading, thank you for listening. I want to hear your story. It helps me, too.