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To improve mental health, reevaluate the culture around success

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: Opinions


Repeatedly during their first week at Brandeis, students are told that should they need help there is a plethora of resources available to them. Any question has an office to which it can be directed, counseling sessions are available without cost and we are told that there is no reason to hesitate in reaching out. But too often after our first week, we forget to engage in a discussion about the reasons why mental health issues surface during our college years.

Recently, a story made the rounds on social media networks of a student who was nearly forced out of the University of Amherst after seeking help in the wake of a rape by a fellow student. Several years ago, a professor was murdered at the University of Texas after her student was failed by his school’s mental health services. After two suicides on our own campus in as many years, isn’t it time we put serious thought in the way we look at mental health?

Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as simply reforming our own campus system—though that is undoubtedly the best place to start. Troubles with the system at Brandeis are a symptom, and while treating it will certainly ease the issue on this campus, the ailment is far deeper than that: the problem at hand is likely an expression of a culture that refuses to deal with mental health in productive and understanding ways.

In the United States, there is a widespread cultural attitude of self-reliance. In many cases, people don’t want to ask for help for fear of burdening their friends and family, or for being seen as less worthy, important or successful person. There is an incredible pressure on soldiering through, on persevering alone in pursuit of some hazy, ill-defined and often unattainable portrait of happiness defined by success: the American dream, a concept that lives on in our ideology but exists less and less often in the realm of reality. Working one’s way up to success is more and more challenging as the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater. Similarly, the concept that sheer perseverance, against all odds, which will yield this sweet ideal, becomes gradually unrealistic.

Our concepts of success are changing drastically. In truth, perhaps American culture no longer needs this idealistic obsession. The world, and the role of Americans in it, is changing—so, why then does this obsession with self-reliance as the value of a person’s worth in this world so stubbornly persist? But persist it does, and as a result, mental health has become stigmatized, implying that one is less worthy, a label that is as blatantly wrong as it is intrinsically harmful for those to whom it is assigned.

That insidious attitude may well be the root of the aforementioned problems with the way universities deal with mental health: the concept of success is at the heart of much of academic culture, but it is time to reform the way that success is offered and defined. There should be an understanding that there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking aid in the path to success. And until the attitudes discussed can change, issues regarding mental health will continue to be stigmatized, viewed as issues that should be cast aside and as problems that should be overcome with that good old American spirit.

This is not an active disregard, but rather the final face of an overall attitude of self-reliance in equation to success that pervades this culture and infects everything we do. It is time not only for a shift in the way this and other universities prioritize mental health, but also in the way our culture dismisses it as a personal failing. The first steps in this path have already been taken, and it is time for a serious movement in university culture to re-establish our concept of success so as to better the way we deal with issues of mental health.