Mental health and campus culture

Sara Coello, Staff Writer

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Mental Health Monday Meditations will be held in the Chapel at 1 p.m. on Mondays. This opportunity creates a moment for students to pause and reflect. Photo by Elizabeth Kerin.

College is a time for exploration and self-discovery, and nowhere is that philosophy embraced with more enthusiasm than at the University of Dallas. While our intellectual odysseys may give us strong foundations for further contemplation, however, the nature of campus culture can have some detrimental effects upon students’ mental health.

This is true of most college campuses — many freshmen have never lived away from their families or with roommates before, and while the nature of our curriculum may be unique, UD students are not the only ones to experience academic stress.

The free counseling and community programs on campus mean that college is the first time many students seek professional help for their problems. These outreaches are hugely helpful, not just in coping with situational issues unique to college life, but in aiding students who have never before sought help or even diagnoses for pre-existing conditions. Many UD students were homeschooled and didn’t even see the standard-issue school counselor who inhabits most public schools.

Unfortunately, social stigma and internalized sentiments often keep students from seeking help even when it is available. There’s almost a glorification of unhealthy behavior on campus, from overwork and under-sleep to stress-based solidarity that seems to grow exponentially throughout midterms and finals weeks.

In terms of diagnosed mental illness, people seem to assume one of two extreme opinions: that mentally ill people are insane psychopaths, dangerous to themselves and others; or that they are lazy whiners, seeking validation for exaggerated problems.

These attitudes pervade the majority of American college campuses and even the culture at large. So what, if anything, makes UD unique in terms of mental health issues?

The emphasis on liberal arts certainly plays a part, however nebulous. The whole point of a liberal arts education is to equip the mind to develop itself, which is certainly crucial in self-development. Many forms of therapy mimic this model – recovery begins and ends with the individual.

It can, however, be taken too far. I’ve heard students here use Nietzsche’s reasonings as proof that people with mental illnesses are playing victim to their own laziness, and argue that proper philosophical reasoning can cure anything from anxiety to schizophrenia.

UD’s enthusiastic Catholicism also affects attitudes, and this itself isn’t a problem. Solid religious belief can stabilize chaotic lives, and Catholicism’s emphasis on grace and community can be particularly helpful – the Mass is a community practice, perfect for those suffering from feelings of isolation; confession can help people who are struggling with difficult decisions or just need a listening ear; chants, meditations and the rosary are similar to a variety of anxiety-reduction techniques.

But these things are abused as well. There are people who self-harm as penance and those who believe that forgiveness requires completely refusing to acknowledge another’s wrongdoings, even to the point of internalizing trauma or refusing to report abusive behavior. Less extremely and much more commonly, mental illness can be characterized as a punishment or blessing from God, an opportunity for penance or contemplation.

To say that mental illness is a gift from God or can be overcome by faith may not be intentionally rude, but these are the sort of comments articulated at UD on a regular basis. Not only do such attitudes often underestimate the severity and legitimacy of mental illnesses, they also misunderstand religion. I’m no expert on Catholic theology, but to say that people who struggle with feelings of isolation and hopelessness just aren’t trying hard enough seems to oversimplify the nature of faith. Anybody who has been asked to rejoice that their loved ones are likely with God can attest – faith is not an automated endorphin dispensary.

I don’t think that the extreme versions of these opinions are predominant in our university, and some people who hold watered-down versions of these attitudes may not even be conscious of them. But it’s exactly the subconscious attitudes which are the most pervasive, and their manifestations may have unintended implications.

That a mental illness is an opportunity for self-exploration may seem comforting to one person, but dismissive to another. A lot of these disorders are real on a physical level; they can be measured and medicated, treated as any other illness. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t say it about cancer, don’t say it about mental illness.

No aspect of UD’s unique culture needs to change in order to fix our attitudes — we can still love the liberal arts, we can still hold Catholicism dear. Though misuse can render our passions harmful — and isn’t that true for everything — they can also be essential recovery and coping tools for students. But it’s up to us to approach them with the proper attitude. A comfort is not a cure, and what might be helpful for one person could harm another.

And so, on behalf of people with mental illnesses ranging from finals-augmented stress to PTSD, I ask that as a community we take a closer look at our attitudes regarding these issues. We, not just as a school but as a culture, need to strive for understanding and compassion — and if that is too much to ask, respect will do.

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