Ceraolo: Censored Friendship

by Julia Ceraolo | 10/8/15 9:06pm

Many people have recently been speaking out about the dearth of counselors and other resources to sufficiently support students’ mental health needs. I fully endorse these complaints and understand the need for more institutional structure in the realm of mental health. Just as troubling to me, however, is the way campus culture teaches students to think that discussions of mental health are burdens on their friendships. This effectively creates an unsupportive environment for people with mental health issues and likely sets them up for relapse.

During my time at the College, I have had more than a few friends who struggled with depression, social anxiety and eating disorders as well as perhaps less frequently discussed and less pathological but still disruptive problems such as procrastination. Though I was never diagnosed with anything, I was frequently very anxious in social situations during the first half of my college career, and I felt there were no constructive ways available for dealing with my emotions. It was a trap — the more shy and anxious I became, the less likely I was to confide in anyone about how I felt and instead unhealthily bottled up those feelings.

I observed similar patterns in some of my friends. They were self-aware, funny, smart and accomplished — but the very self-awareness that made them extremely likable also apparently inhibited their ability to confront their issues. They felt that talking about their issues would damage their reputation or image, so they often decided against speaking with anyone, especially with their friends — the very people one would assume such subjects would first be revealed.

I often hear people talk about a culture of “not being allowed to be not okay” on campus — but this misses the point. Everyone at the College is educated enough to know at least something about mental health. The issue is that the campus climate prevents students from defining their friendships in ways that promote honesty, authenticity and well-being. This is because the management of mental health is always assigned to ever more rarified circles of responsibility — to their families, psychiatrists and even medications. Ironically, it is too often assumed that the problem of mental health is too big and amorphous to be addressed in any meaningful way by the average person walking from Dartmouth Hall to Collis Cafe.

The result is a college culture that promotes “friendship bailing” — in times of crisis, many hitherto ostensibly real friendships abruptly default to acquaintanceship. Conversations are reduced to sound bites traded back and forth. I have certainly heard my fair share of canned responses from friends — reflexive, little phrases that do not bear the marks of extensive thought or introspection. Moreover, friendship bailing intersects with hookup culture and this generation’s phobia of commitment, severely impeding students from developing the support networks they need.

As a consequence, students who seek help often are unable to find it. Students come back to their fraternity, sorority or dorm, and many treat what should be their homes like a workplace — a place where it would be unseemly to discuss deeply personal problems. This is a mindset that is destructive to both the individual and to the individual’s friend groups, as well as to the campus culture at large. Rather, unedited and uncensored social interaction is what students need as a preventative measure for mental health.

It seems to me that smartphones and social media play a huge and multifaceted role in this massive 21st-century theater of campus mental health. We are in contact with our families and friends from other locales at unprecedented levels.

So, the thinking often goes, why should students learn to rely on their friends on campus for long heart-to-hearts? Wouldn’t that be presumptuous, even a chore? Why not take the path of least resistance and talk online to parents or best friends from high school instead?

To that, I reply that there must be a balance. Students should retain and grow the ability to form new, in-person and meaningful friendships even as they maintain their relationships with family and old friends. Students do not “go away to college.” College is not a vacation away from home nor is it a four-year role-playing exercise in “Being a College Student” -— it is your new home. When you find yourself crying into the phone and saying, “Well, you had to be there to understand” — you’re right.