Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

[Content note: suicide, mental illness]

A few weeks ago Northwestern lost yet another student to suicide. There’s been pressure building all year for improved mental health services on campus, and I think that pressure will soon culminate in real, helpful changes on campus.

At the same time, some have been saying that what we need is not better mental healthcare services, but changes in campus “culture,” such as a reduction in the stigma of accessing mental healthcare and an increase in our willingness to discuss mental health which each other.

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive; I think we need both. People whose troubles are relatively minor will benefit from increased openness about mental health on campus without needing any improvements in mental healthcare, but those who suffer from serious mental illnesses–the kind that can contribute to suicide–need more than just supportive friends and professors. They need treatment. Right now, it’s becoming clear that many of those people are not getting the help they need.

Echoing these debates, a blog run by Northwestern students called Sherman Ave posted a piece called “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience.” (Sherman Ave usually sticks to humor, but this time it poignantly diverged.) The author wrote:

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services. As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience. If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

And a commenter responded:

I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this. Practically speaking, changing a culture is like voting–it’s pretty rare that the actions of a single individual make an immediately noticeable difference. Westerners are used to thinking of themselves as individual agents, acting on their own and without any influence from or effect on their surrounding culture, and this is probably one of the many reasons it’s so difficult for people to even conceive of being able to make an actual impact when it comes to something like this.

You don’t have to be an activist, a therapist, or a researcher to make a difference when it comes to mental health. The following are small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued. Although I’m specifically thinking about college campuses here, this is applicable to anything you might call a “community”–an organization, a group of friends, a neighborhood.

1. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them the truth.

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

2. If you see a therapist or have in the past and are comfortable telling people, tell them.

One awesome thing many of my friends do is just casually drop in references to the fact that they see a therapist into conversation. This doesn’t have to be awkward or off-topic, but it does have to be intentional. They’ll say stuff like, “Sorry, I can’t hang out then; I have therapy” or they’ll mention something they learned or talked about in a therapy session where it’s relevant. The point of this is to normalize therapy and to treat it like any other doctor’s appointment or anything else you might do for your health, like going to the gym or buying healthy food. It also suggests to people that you are someone they can go to if they’re considering therapy and have questions about it, because you won’t stigmatize them.

3. Drop casual misuse of mental illness from your language.

Don’t say the weather is “bipolar.” Don’t refer to someone as “totally schizo.” Don’t claim to be “depressed” if you’re actually just feeling sad (unless, of course, you actually are depressed). Don’t call someone’s preference for neatness “so OCD.” These are serious illnesses and it hurts people who have them to see them referenced flippantly and incorrectly. One fourth of adults will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and you might not know if one of them is standing right next to you. Furthermore, the constant misuse of these terms makes it easier for people to dismiss those who (accurately) claim to have a mental illness. If all you know about “being totally ADHD” is when you have a bit of trouble doing the dense reading for your philosophy class, it becomes easier to dismiss someone who tells you that they actually have ADHD.

4. Know the warning signs of mental illness and suicidality, and know where to refer friends who need professional help.

You can find plenty of information about this online or in pamphlets at a local counseling center. If you’re a student, find out what mental health services your campus offers. If you’re not a student, find out about low-cost counseling in your area. If you have the time, see if you can attend a training on suicide prevention (and remember that asking someone if they’re okay or if they’ve been feeling suicidal will not make them not-okay or suicidal). Being aware and informed about mental health can make a huge difference in the life of a friend who needs help. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for people who need help or that it’s your fault if you don’t succeed in helping them–not at all. It just gives you a toolbox that’ll help you respond if someone in your community is showing signs of mental illness.

Learning about mental illness is also extremely important because it helps you decolonize your mind from the stigma you’ve probably learned. Even those who really want to be supportive and helpful to people with mental illnesses have occasionally had fleeting thoughts of “Why can’t they just try harder” and “Maybe they’re just making this up for attention.” That’s stigma talking. Even if you didn’t learn this from your family, you learned it from the surrounding culture. Studying mental illness helps shut that voice up for good.

5. Understand how social structures–culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc.–influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental  health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups–the poor, people of color, etc.–face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups–women, queer people, etc.–have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media–which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Dear Northwestern Administration: Wake Up

I have a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern today. If I seem kind of angry, that’s because I am. 

Dear Editor,

Today I learned that Alyssa Weaver, the Weinberg junior who passed away last week, took her own life.

I didn’t know Alyssa. I could’ve, though, because she was going to move into my apartment when she returned from studying abroad. We’d chatted on Facebook a few times. I had no idea how much we had in common.

Because, here’s the thing. Her tragic story was very close to being mine, as well.

I’ve had clinical depression since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it until the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, by which point it had become so serious that I became reclusive, miserable, exhausted, and preoccupied with the thought of taking my own life.

I went to CAPS. I got my twelve free sessions. My therapist was kind and supportive but never screened me for depression or any other mental illness. After the sessions were over, I was no better, had no idea what to do next, and deteriorated even more.

The only reason I’m here now is because, thankfully, the school year ended right then. I went home to my family, and I am privileged enough to have a loving, supportive family with good insurance that covers mental health. I saw a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants. I recovered, for the most part, although even now I live in the shadow of the knowledge that depression as chronic as mine usually comes back.

I’ll be blunt. The state of mental health services on this campus is absolutely unacceptable. We have too few staff members at CAPS. We have no orientation program on mental health. There are still faculty members at this school–I will not name names–who refuse to accept mental health-related accommodations provided by Services for Students with Disabilities. Unlike virtually every other top-tier school and even many high schools, we have no peer counseling service, although I have been trying to start one for a year and a half. There just aren’t enough resources.

The only reason we have campus events about mental health at all is because of NU Active Minds, an amazing student group that’s still fairly new. But they should not be doing this work on their own, and there’s only so much they can do.

Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.

I have fought tooth and nail to beat my depression and to find a supportive community here at NU. It breaks my heart that some of my fellow students have been unable to win that battle.

How many more Wildcats will we have to lose before the administration starts taking mental health more seriously?

Sincerely,
Miriam Mogilevsky
Weinberg senior
Director of NU Listens

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.

Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

Many well-intentioned people decry casual sex (or hooking up, or what have you) and argue that there’s something inherently demeaning about it–that you’re just letting the other person use your body and then toss it aside, that you’re letting them disrespect you.

It’s worth noting that, to these people, it’s only the woman in the (always heterosexual) pairing who gets used, abused, demeaned, and disrespected. But that sexist double standard is a separate conversation from the one I want to have, which is this: is casual sex intrinsically disrespectful? And is committed sex, then, intrinsically respectful?

My views on this issue have been evolving a lot recently. Overall, I’ve had a very negative experience with casual sex. The times that I haven’t been outright pressured and/or forced into it, I’ve been manipulated, insulted, and lied to.

I’m not saying that to get advice or sympathy, by the way. I’m saying it to explain why I can never really view casual sex as an Intrinsically Good Thing–my experiences with it have mostly been awful, whereas my experiences with committed sex have mostly been pretty great.

And that’s not to say that I see it as morally wrong or inadvisable, or that I think it’s too “dangerous” for people to do (that would be victim-blaming!). I do criticize it. But I also criticize people who moralize about it.

tl;dr my views on it are complicated and I can’t boil them down into a convenient soundbite.

But anyway, as I’ve gotten involved with organizations and people outside of Northwestern, I’ve started to realize that my views may be skewed somewhat because I live in a bubble. The Northwestern bubble. I live in it, I work in it, and, well, I have sex in it, too.

I know I should be careful about criticizing Northwestern’s campus culture. It’s not a homogenous thing, first of all, and it shares a lot of similarities with other campus cultures. However, now that I’ve met so many folks who are going (or went) to school elsewhere, I’ve become more confident in the fact that there are some things about this school that are relatively unique.

All of us at Northwestern are very intelligent. Many of us were picked on in elementary and middle school and self-identified as nerds in high school. Everyone I’ve met here has plenty of stories about that.

Many of us didn’t have much sexual experience before college (and many still don’t–a survey done here shows that almost half of the students have not had sex within the past year). However, we are all, to some extent, products of a culture that values sexual experience and “coolness.” We are a Big Ten school located near a huge city, and, to a greater degree than many other elite universities, ours is full of students who are on a pre-professional track–not here just for knowledge and intellectual growth, but to prepare for a career. And we know that in the workplace, we will be judged not only by our abilities, but by our appearance and our level of social aptitude.

Combine that appearance-focused, results-oriented mindset with pressure–both internal and external–to have sex, and you will have our campus’ hookup culture. It can be a lot of fun if you find the right people, but it can also be alienating, dehumanizing, and painful. I know, because I’ve been there.

And until recently, I thought that that’s just the nature of the beast. I thought that most people who like to hook up have stories like mine–if not only stories like mine. But as I’ve been meeting more people who don’t go here, I’ve heard more and more stories of casual sex done right–with respect, enthusiasm, honesty, and consent.

Although I’d long suspected that you don’t have to treat someone like an object just because you’re only hooking up with them for one night, I had yet to hear of any actual evidence for that. I had yet to meet people who could tell me that they’d had a casual thing with someone and it was not only consensual and physically enjoyable, but respectful and affirming, too. But now I have.

I’ve also realized that there are so many situations in which committed sex can be just as demeaning and disrespectful as my experience with casual sex has been. For starters, people can rape each other even within relationships–something that conservatives who wring their hands over casual sex don’t seem to understand (in many countries, marital rape was not criminalized until the late 20th century). In some ways, rape within committed relationships can be even more difficult to address because of expectations that your partner be available to you sexually whenever you want, and/or that you should be sexually available to your partner whenever they want.

Even if consent is actually given, sex within relationships can still be disrespectful (as I’d perceive it, at least). People can still be focused on their own pleasure without regard for their partner’s. People can still take their partners for granted. People can still objectify their partners. A serious relationship–including marriage–does not automatically imply that people are enjoying a healthy, mutually respectful sex life.

Ultimately, I think that any sexual relationship–whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime–can only be as respectful as the people involved in it. The partners I had were not respectful, and they would not have been any more respectful if I’d been in a serious relationship with them. I felt disrespected and demeaned not because I chose to have casual sex with them, but because I chose to interact with them, period.

I believe that sex is ultimately value-free, as long as it is consensual. No “type” of sex–casual, committed, kinky, vanilla, straight, gay, solo–is intrinsically anything. Sex of any kind with someone who respects you and treats you well can be wonderful, and sex of any kind with someone who does not will probably be terrible.

Unfortunately, fixing the latter problem is much more difficult than shaming and scaring young people out of hooking up. We’d first have to create a culture in which people don’t view each other as a means to an end.

And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to do that.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B's

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

"There are no hot girls at Northwestern."

The other day at a certain user-submitted news website, a new Northwestern student was asking for advice about “the party scene” at our school. He also inquires about the attractiveness of the “females” at our school (I think he means “women”), and several dudebros inform him not to get his hopes up. One writes, “No offense to the girls, but Northwestern is just not an attractive campus overall; guys and girls complain about it all the time.”

Lest you think this is just Reddit stupidity, it’s not. The alleged unattractiveness of Northwestern students is something that I’ve heard referenced many times. There’s even a related term: “Northwestern Goggles.” Urban Dictionary says that “Northwestern Goggles” is “when a female student from Northwestern University is considered “hot” only because most of her fellow students are ugly.” Dictionary db has a lengthy explanation of it too, except it references men rather than women. (Northwestern Goggles is, apparently, an equal-opportunity phenomenon.)

A student review of Northwestern at Vault.com states, “And if you’re looking for attractive male students, look elsewhere. Students develop “Northwestern Goggles” where people who, outside of NU, wouldn’t be considered dating material quickly become eligible and desirable bachelors or bachelorettes.” Campus media references the term, too. A few years back one of Daily’s sex columnists pondered this issue. And, of course, there’s a GIF.

I don’t believe the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. First of all, it just doesn’t jive with my experience at Northwestern and that of the friends that I’ve talked to. I know that’s circumstantial, but I think it’s still worthwhile to point out that some of us disagree. Some of us think that there are plenty of people at NU who look like they could be models. I can think of a number of qualities that are lacking on this campus–for instance, compassion–but attractiveness is not one of them.

Second, I’m somewhat disinclined to even consider the validity of this myth until someone designs a reliable, scientific measure of human attractiveness, applies it to representative populations of a number of universities, and shows me that Northwestern’s Attractiveness Quotient is lower than average.

And “I visited my friend at a state school once and the girls/guys there were so much hotter” does not count. That’s circumstantial evidence, and it’s also confirmation bias: we’ve all heard the Myth of the Ugly NU Student since we got here, so as soon as we get off campus we’re probably eager to try to find attractive specimens to validate our expectations.

Third, I’m not exactly sure what people hope to accomplish by constantly restating the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. While I’m not a huge believer in karma, I’m still pretty sure that it doesn’t exactly do wonders for your love life if you go around moaning about how ugly everyone at Northwestern is. And since most people do realize that beauty is subjective, “There are no hot girls/guys here” is really more a statement of “Look how Cool and Picky I am” than of any actual lack of beautiful people at Northwestern. Congratulations, you’re really Cool and Picky.

Ultimately, whether or not you find attractive members of your preferred gender(s) at Northwestern is entirely up to you. I think it’s pretty judgmental and shallow to dismiss our school with terms like “Northwestern Goggles.” If anything on this campus is ugly, it’s that.