By Rose Farah and Sonia Fillipow, Durham, North Carolina, 2017.
In the United States, college students experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than any other age group. In fact, one-third of college students in the country report having felt so depressed that they find it hard to function1. Certain societal infrastructures perpetuate mental health illnesses more than others. In high-pressure environments such as Duke University, for example, there is an unspoken need to mask perfection, project invincibility, effortlessly manage academics, a social life, health and wellness, and more. While students across campus struggle to maintain their mental health – proven by the near impossibility of booking an appointment at CAPS (Counseling & Psychological Services) – the culture of perfectionism and stigma surrounding mental difference block productive discussion and further isolate those who experience it.
In a given day, an individual asks and is asked, “How are you?” countless times. In our own experiences, the question and responses are rarely genuine. People who struggle with mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression often feel as though admitting to their struggle will make them seem imperfect, and in other cases, they do not want to burden the individual who asked them. While we do not expect students to unload their problems on every person who asks “How are you?”, the simple exercise of genuinely asking and answering the question can create an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their experiences with others, thereby normalizing mental difference and reducing stigma.
On two separate occasions, we stood outside Perkins Library to ask passersby two questions. First, “How are you?” and then, “On a scale of 1-10, how honest was your response?” Of the 40 students with whom we spoke, 38 replied “Good” to the first question, and nearly half reported an honesty score of 5 or less in response to the second question. Not only does this exercise demonstrate the discrepancy between how students present themselves and how they actually feel, but it allowed the students we met to understand the impact of their daily interactions in perpetuating a culture of perfectionism at this university. One international student explained, “I’m not sure if it’s okay to say I am not okay.” Until we normalize mental difference, we will continue to isolate the most vulnerable members of our community.