Dialogue needed on mental health

Earlier this semester, I had the opportunity to speak with Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology, about his take on mental health in the Swarthmore community. During our conversation, we spoke about the increasingly stressful environment at Swarthmore since the beginning of his teaching career. Among other things, what struck me most were the general statements he made about Swarthmore’s student body.

Schwartz spoke of how Swarthmore has become more of a pressure cooker than in the past, because it admits students from more protected backgrounds who have parents who “fix” all their problems and pressure them to succeed. When they come to Swarthmore they crumble in the face of the college’s challenging academics. Schwartz also blamed the privilege of Swatties for the rampant alcohol abuse and “sexual misadventures” that have brought the college to the media spotlight recently. He cited the recent case of the Texas teen who blamed “affluenza” to avoid conviction for a drunk driving accident. According to Schwartz, this case illustrates the “work hard, play hard” attitude of privileged adolescents and college students.

In addition to discussing privilege among Swatties, Schwartz made a few comments about the immigrant story in America. When I spoke about my own immigrant parents and their desire for me to succeed he said “There’s a saying [about first generation immigrants], that you go from stock clerk to stock clerk in three generations. So immigrants come, work their asses off, they instill this incredible ambition in their kids … and they succeed. Their kids have kids who are privileged, pampered, overprotected — and they fail … I’m not saying this happens to everyone, but there are a lot of third-generation immigrants in this country who won’t live the lives of their parents, and probably don’t deserve to.” Needless to say, I, as a second-generation American, took some issue with this statement, since immigration has shaped America for centuries and I know from experience is a myriad of immigrant stories that can’t be placed on such a generalized trajectory.

I am not saying that Barry Schwartz was totally wrong about everything he said. We are, in general, privileged in the very fact that we attend this institution. A good number of Swatties were privileged prior to coming to college and probably were protected by their parents. I know I was. But his statements pointing to the demographics of the student body still fall short. There are many students here who hail from lower-income backgrounds, as well as those who are not privileged by their gender, race or sexuality. Schwartz also seemed to imply that students acquire their anxiety issues upon arriving at Swat. Yet for some Swatties who suffer from anxiety, work is not the source of stress in the least. There are also students who come to Swarthmore already grappling with a wide array of pre-existing anxieties and other mental health issues — something Schwartz did not address at all. To me, my conversation with Barry Schwartz was indicative of two things.

First, it made me aware of how many members of Swarthmore’s faculty, despite spending most of their days in and around the campus, are quite removed from the non-academic aspects of student life. Last year, when the campus was entrenched in heated debates about various issues like diversity, sexual assault policy and Greek life, one of my English professors asked me, “What do students think about what’s going on around campus? What do you think? I’m not really aware, from my position as a professor.” And granted, a professor probably isn’t supposed to know everything about student life. But wouldn’t it help the entire campus wrestle with difficult social issues if faculty had a heightened awareness?

Second, I became aware of how, despite immense progress in campus conversations about mental health, there are attitudes about mental health on campus and society as a whole that still are in need of change. Granted, Swarthmore has made incredible progress in opening up forums for students to speak freely about mental health, like CAPS groups and Speak2Swatties. But I still feel that the prevailing notion about mental health is that it’s seen as a problem of privileged people, who otherwise could not afford to have these types of issues. In reality, mental health is a complicated issue that we do not yet understand in its entirety. Our understanding of mental health cannot move forward and the issue will not lose its stigma if we consign it to being an issue of the privileged or the “crazy.”

I believe all members of the Swarthmore community, including faculty, should begin to partake in conversations about issues students face, especially mental health awareness. It is only through a widespread awareness on campus that conversations about this issue can become more sensitive and all Swarthmore community members can speak freely about problems that are very real.

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