Sharma: The Unspoken Stigma

by Hansa Sharma | 10/8/15 9:07pm

Do you remember the Hat Game? If you need a refresher to jog your memory about this Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips’ classic, the Hat Game entails asking Trip leaders anonymous questions via slips of paper dropped in a hat. During my Trip, most of the questions were simply jokes that had everyone in splits from laughing. It was amusing to see our Trip leaders compete to see who could most creatively dodge questions about their sexual history. Other questions were thought-provoking and productive. My knowledgeable trip leaders talked extensively about academic advice, stress management and their experiences maintaining a balance between their work and personal lives. There was one question, however, that struck a chord — perhaps the wrong chord. This anonymous question was about depression at the College. Instantly, the temperature in the cabin seemed to drop. The transition from wholesome fun to discomfort amongst the Tripees was evident on everyone’s faces.

Despite the change in atmosphere, our Trip leaders handled the question with skill and grace. They noted the gravity of the issue, especially on college campuses, and detailed the abundant resources Dartmouth students can access, including the Trip leaders themselves and appointments with Counseling and Human Development at Dick’s House. Yet these resources are apparently not enough. According to a 2014 Health Survey conducted by the College’s Office of Institutional Research, depression and anxiety are the top two most commonly reported mental health issues at the College, and 23 percent of students that year reported that depression impacted their academic performance. What’s more is that these statistics are in no way exclusive to the College — the American College Health Association, for example, states in its 2011 National College Health Assessment that 30 percent of college students at two- and four-year institutions reported having in the past year felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Considering these high numbers, why does depression remain such a taboo subject to discuss? If college freshmen can nonchalantly ask upperclassmen such audacious questions as, “How many of the Dartmouth Seven have you done?,” why are students so hesitant to discuss an issue that has the power to damage someone academically, socially and medically if left untreated?

Admittedly, just because I am writing about this important topic does not necessarily mean that I practice what I preach. As a matter of fact, just this morning I was at wits’ end when emailing my professor to reschedule an exam, even though I understand that asking a professor for accommodations so I can recover my health should not be such an intimidating and draining process. Why do simple things like recovering from the dreaded freshman plague and studying for midterms become too overwhelming to manage? Moreover, based on what I hear from friends and peers, I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed.

For this reason, the most meaningful aspect of Orientation for me was hearing stories from current students. While the academic advising sessions were likewise helpful, the stories that other students shared struck a chord with me. Even in the public setting of Spaulding Auditorium, the upperclassmen were able to create an intimate atmosphere through their willingness to share something about their unique experiences at the College that felt genuinely personal. In that moment, it was reassuring to hear that I was not alone. As they reminded me, every member of the Class of 2019 is in the same place, trying to adjust to a new chapter of their lives and grasping at common threads to prevent themselves from falling apart.

Now that Dartmouth students are in the midst of week four and getting slammed with midterms and papers, the upperclassmen’s wise words are more relevant than ever: you are not alone and you might never know until you share. Whether it is asking to speak with a professor during office hours for help with course material or venting to your friends about your overwhelming schedule, it should be okay to communicate your struggles in a safe space. As Dartmouth students become more open to sharing their daily difficulties with the people they trust, I am confident that students will gradually lose their discomfort discussing mental health as a campus so that this topic that now seems so taboo can take its rightful place as a regular and important part of campus conversations.