Picking a college is a disorienting experience. Be it a campus tour, an overnight visit, or a brochure in the mail, everyone has a different path to where they are now. And no matter how many data points are accumulated or how many student reviews are read, no one knows entirely what their chosen college will look like until they live there. Carleton is wonderful, but there is something that we just don’t talk about when you’re searching, even less when you get there. That’s mental health.
It seems in the land of “cows, colleges, and contentment” that people have a hard time admitting that they’re not happy. That’s because it immediately rebounds to one’s surroundings. Are your professors and peers treating you well? Are your classes too challenging? Have you considered transferring? What’s MAKING you sad? But when it comes to issues of mental health there doesn’t need to be a reason. Eating disorders, seasonal affective disorder, social anxiety, depression, they aren’t linear. We can’t draw it out as cause/effect. The complexity of someone’s tahoughts and feelings discourages many people from ever talking about them. But it is this complexity that begs to be explored. Sometimes you need an extra hand to untangle mental health.
The lack of an honest dialogue about mental health is heavily enabled by the college’s failure to address the issue. To be fair, it’s a tricky line to navigate. How does the administration confront the issue without seeming complicit in the problem? If the students are unhappy, doesn’t that invariably sound like an issue with the college?
The problem with these concerns is that they suggest students show up and catch the bug. That they’re fresh, perky, bright-eyed freshmen who slump into depression along the way. But that isn’t the case. Students come to college with all different issues to unpack, some arrive ready to start this new part of their life by confronting their struggles with mental health. And they arrive to be disappointed. Counseling services at the SHAC are heavily booked making the question never “What time works for you?”, but instead “I have this open slot. If the time doesn’t work we can schedule an appointment for a couple weeks from now.”
And then there’s the other issue. Counseling is not the equivalent of psychiatric care. Counseling is a paddle board and psychiatry is a life boat. The counselors at SHAC do the best they can, but they lack the years of training that psychiatrists have. What’s more, they’re required to diagnose and resolve all different health issues rather than remaining focused on mental, sexual, or physical health. The same person who counsels you about depression gives you a mouth swab for strep throat. They’re over-worked and underfunded. It’s unfair to everyone and makes the student body less healthy.
So what can we do?
A friend once described conversations as an elevator that its participants are perpetually stepping out of. Press the button, “how are you?” The doors slide open and you hear a “good” as you step off. These basic interactions are somewhat inevitable and avoiding them is never a question of how to care more. We care. The question is how to stay in the elevator, how to make the other person feel less alone. It’s different for every person, but don’t be afraid to get direct. “You’ve seemed down lately, do you want to talk?” Even if the answer is “no”, you’ve established yourself as a support system and opened the door for future conversations.
But lastly, and most importantly, don’t be uncomfortable about it. Whether you’re suffering from mental health issues yourself, or know someone else who is, it’s nothing to disregard or feel awkward about. Mental health is part of what makes a person who they are. And everyone’s an intricate, little snowflake…nope. We’re not going down that road. But you get the idea anyway.