Cunningham: Behind the Mask

by Frank Cunningham | 10/8/15 9:09pm

I remember the smile. I remember how draining it was trying to appear happy when it felt like there was nothing but pain and sorrow on the inside. When asked how I was doing, I would say I was fine, reply simply with “nothing” when a friend asked what was wrong. With each false word, I felt myself recede further into the darkness. There were days when I looked in the mirror, unable to recognize the person staring back at me. But even when I felt like I was losing a grasp on who I was, who that person looking back from the mirror was, I was even more afraid of what the reality would be if I took off the mask and finally opened up to myself and my friends about my struggles.

Mental health is arguably one of the most critical issues facing college students today. More so than any other issue, mental health has the potential to intersect all aspects of a student’s experience, impacting our lives both at home and on campus, with our friends and in the classroom. The nature of being a student at the College is a demanding one, a system that drives a constant pressure not to simply get by, but to perform, to excel and to achieve. Even more, we are pressured to be — or at least appear — happy. Happiness is, however, a privilege not everyone can experience. For some, finding genuine happiness is an aspiration that requires considerable effort. For others, faking a smile becomes part of the morning routine.

There is often an anxiety that comes with common daily interactions, for you may worry that someone will see past the smile and catch a glimpse of your unvarnished, vulnerable self. With this come questions: “How are you?” “Are you okay?” “What’s going on?” These situations often confront one with the decision to either explain or deflect. Rather than divulging the truth, that you might not be okay or that you feel like you cannot keep it together anymore, it can be easy to avoid the honest answer and instead deflect using the go to: “I’m just tired,” or “I have an exam.”

In diverting our friends’ questions away from the truth with false answers, we avoid the essential question that we must ask ourselves: do I need help? It’s possible to run from answering that by burying ourselves in work, over-committing ourselves to extracurriculars or drinking to a point where we no longer can hear our own thoughts. At every deflection, there is again a mask that overshadows our true feelings, and each time we avoid the truth it becomes more a part of who we are. Eventually, the time comes when it is increasingly difficult to tell yourself that everything is okay, to continue to think it is a sign of weakness to seek help, to hide behind our mask. For it is not until we are honest with ourselves that we can be honest with others. It was not until I opened up to my friends that I realized that I had the support group the enabled to now take off my mask.

As a community, we must never forget to be there in times of need for our classmates. Although we may share different beliefs, backgrounds or future endeavors, we depend on each other as a support system. When we chose to come here, we assumed a responsibility to be a supportive member of our community. We owe it to each other to create an environment where students no longer have to hide behind a mask, where we can be open with one another. We should strive to foster a community in which we can lean and be leaned on.

From my experience I’ve learned that it only takes the extension of a caring hand to pick someone up who has seen their darkest days. We must challenge ourselves to overcome our dissimilarities to lend one another a helping hand. We need to commit to being there, to actively listen, to support each other. For it is not only the responsibility of Dick’s House to ensure our mental well-being. It is on the students, the faculty and the administration to be there for those in time of need.

Cunningham is the Student Assembly president.