Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
I vividly remember presenting the idea to my colleagues in The Columbia Daily Spectator. Usually my pitches involved elaborate descriptions and several sentences nuancing the question, but this pitch was by far the simplest of the semester: Are these really the best four years of our lives?
This pitch was for our Discourse and Debate column, a section under Opinion in which five different writers respond to a single prompt biweekly. After being given a list of four pitches, the writers vote on which pitch most appeals to them. This week, it was mine.
Huddled around a table with Moleskine notebooks and laptops, the group of writers considered the question. There was little disagreement about the belief that these are not, in fact, our best years. This isn’t our peak. One writer remarked bluntly, “God, I hope these aren’t the best four years of my life.”
God, I hope they aren’t either. And I’m sure they won’t be.
Columbia University is notorious for its students’ mental health issues. We’ve had numerous op-eds written about our rampant stress culture, which is exacerbated by our flawed mental health resources. With profound sadness, we’ve watched our friends and classmates feel inadequate on a daily basis. We’ve witnessed them leave for semesters due to mental health. On extremely heartbreaking occasions, we’ve learned of their suicides. Stress culture has become such a common phrase that it’s begun to lose its meaning. And we’re becoming numb.
Growing up, a mix of stories from parents and scenes from movies convinced me that this would be the best four years of my life. I believed that although I would attend classes, that wouldn’t be my main focus. Instead, college would be the time to take advantage of my youth: to join clubs, party on the weekends, visit museums with friends, or simply sleep in.
One could argue that attending an Ivy League institution comes at a price. One could say that we knew what we were signing up for — that Columbia wasn’t going to be a walk in the park (even though we are surrounded by several parks). Students here are driven and competitive. The school is made up of valedictorians, nationally ranked fencers, and entrepreneurs (from age 12). They aren’t here to “have fun,” so why should that be an expectation?
That’s where the challenge lies. On the most basic level, can we all agree that everyone deserves to be happy? That includes all students. At every kind of university. Granted, the road to happiness may not be the same for everyone. For many of us, being happy doesn’t equate to wild parties and skipping class every day. Contrary to popular belief, many of us derive happiness from learning and growing in our field of choice, particularly in an environment of highly motivated students. That’s essentially the setting created at Columbia. To offset the intensity of academic demands, students should be able to rest without guilt, study without ample pressure, and coexist with other students in a moderately social manner. Beyond the pressure of academics, though, I believe there’s an even greater underlying issue. Perhaps the problem isn’t that Columbia is too rigorous. Perhaps it’s that Columbia’s social culture is not conducive to meaningful relationships, and without meaningful relationships, everyone feels alone.
Beyond the weather, my freshman year at Columbia was colder than expected. People didn’t wave when they passed each other, they didn’t smile at strangers, and they didn’t make small talk. Perhaps the Manhattan culture had permeated our college campus, I decided. It took me a long time to realize that this problem was due to our campus, not our city. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for icy demeanors and stoicism. I wasn’t ready to feel alone.
My sophomore year at Columbia improved, but only because I joined clubs and organizations that were specifically conducive to building relationships. I put myself out there, often feeling humiliated and vulnerable. I understand why Columbia has a mental health problem, and I don’t believe it can be attributed entirely to academic pressures. It’s due to our social climate. It’s due to the fact that people don’t smile back, people don’t acknowledge each other, and people are in their own worlds everywhere they are. My world now is a bit warmer, but it has a long way to go.
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