Swarthmore’s Culture of Silence: Addressing Mental Health on Campus

Recently, Yale College senior Julia Lurie published an article in the Huffington Post that piqued our serious interest and concern. In her piece, entitled “Everyone’s Battle: Confronting College Depression,” she describes her battle with anxiety, insomnia, and depression—a battle she has fought throughout her years at college.

She reveals her attempts to hide her illness—to create a confident, accomplished persona for her professors and peers; her feelings of fogginess, hopelessness, and despair; her struggle to acclimate to school even after taking time off. Perhaps most significantly, she touches on a vital point: despite the prevalence of mental health issues, few on her campus readily discuss them:

“This culture of silence—the expectation that despite any problem you may have, you must come across as happy, productive, and successful—leads students to believe that mental health problems are embarrassing and that admitting to them is a display of weakness. As a result, students struggling with mental health issues often feel alone or not good enough for Yale’s standards. When combined with the already intense and competitive nature of Yale, this culture of silence creates an awful environment in which to be unhappy.”

When discussing this article with the members of Speak2Swatties, the college’s mental health advocacy and peer counseling group, its truths hit us hard. We believe that the “culture of silence” Lurie describes at Yale strongly resembles attitudes at Swarthmore. In our college’s high-pressure environment, we, too, are compelled to appear “on top of things.” We must be the brightest, the most competent, able to defeat the most miserable of misery-poker hands. Students—ourselves included—have felt fears of failure: fears of falling behind, of not measuring up, of corroborating our secret theories that our admission was, somehow, accidental.

Thus, we find ourselves in a bind. We strive to seem perpetually in-control, but in reality, such perfection is impossible. At some point or another, all Swatties face issues, large and small. We can’t sleep; we fight with roommates; we break-up and are broken-up with. We worry for troubled friends. We feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or misunderstood; we experience depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Most dangerously, we fear being judged for our struggling: even among friends, vulnerability is a challenging state to embrace. As a result, we don’t share, and we feel alone. We continue to suffer as individuals yet remain silent as a campus community.

Though students are visiting CAPS at higher rates than in years past, public awareness of mental health issues remains low. This topic harbors taboos that create barriers to honest discussion and seeking care. More openness among students is necessary to improve support for psychological wellness. Speak2Swatties hopes to address stigmas surrounding mental health awareness with a campus-wide discussion—“We’re All Mad Here”—about the current state of mental health on campus.

The event will take place on February 22nd in Kohlberg 226 at 7:00 pm. We invite anyone interested in addressing what we can do as an advocacy organization, as well as what we can accomplish as a student body, to foster an atmosphere more conducive to self-care, care for others, and concern for mental health.

As Lurie aptly observes, “everyone has a battle.” We hope that our upcoming discussion will encourage us all to share battles of our own—diagnosable or otherwise—and counter an insidious culture of silence.

Jessica Schleider ’12 and Madrianne Wong ’11, Co-Directors, Speak2Swatties


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