Woodward: Discussing Depression

by Aylin Woodward | 1/28/14 5:53pm

Whether it’s competing on a varsity team, taking a four-course term, running three different organizations, taking skiing for physical education credit, working as a tutor for Student Accessibility Services... Dartmouth kids do it all, and we do it well.

The pervasive myth that everyone here is perfect creates a culture of merciless, unyielding excellence. Everyone seems to run like a well-oiled machine, balancing the burden of rigorous academics with a plethora of extracurricular activities without breaking a sweat. That utopian world with its perfect students is just a facade. Though we try, Dartmouth students are not superheroes. We are not immune to mental health issues that are, in fact, exacerbated by our perfectionist atmosphere.

Perhaps you don’t feel that mental illness is a pressing issue here. After all, who do you know at Dartmouth with depression? But you want to know why no one ever hears about mental illness on campus? It’s because no one talks about it.

Our esteemed “culture of excellence” makes issues like depression and anxiety — issues that may obstruct our academic success and our busy social calendars — stigmatized. Mental illness is perceived on a personal level as weakness. We can’t admit to ourselves or to others that we have a problem, so we don’t seek help. Paying attention to one’s mental health is perceived as a luxury for those who have the time — time that no one has. Even worse, this reluctance to give mental health issues the serious consideration that they require creates a weak support network available for students on campus.

I speak from experience. With junior winter on the horizon, I thought I had my whole undergraduate career under control. Sure, I had anxiety over midterms and papers and my sport, but nothing out of the ordinary, I told myself. My major was almost done, my love life was wonderful, my competition season just starting. But quite suddenly, inexplicably, I found myself in the throes of a deep depression. A depression, ironically enough, that I didn’t even know I was in until I finally connected with a capable therapist, one I had to find outside Dartmouth, because I couldn’t find the help I needed on campus.

It’s true that Dick’s House has tried making significant steps to increase the counseling programs available for students. Its website boasts 11 professionals who specialize in a number of areas. Yet 11 counselors for an undergraduate body of 4,200 are not enough. So, yes, some of the counselors at Dick’s House are capable and able to help, but gaining access to those people in an effectual manner is next to impossible. Getting help is a crapshoot. There can be a two-week wait for an appointment, and counselors can only offers help on a short-term basis, with a set number of appointments until they must refer you to someone else.

The office of student health promotion and wellness sponsors Dartmouth’s community of peer advisors in the department’s four designated “primary content” areas: alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders and nutrition, sexual assault and relationship violence and sexual health. These four groups do incredible work on campus providing outreach programs, but there’s a key area of “primary content” that is missing from the equation — a support community for mental health and awareness. There are many resources and contacts available, both online and otherwise, for the aforementioned four groups, but so few when it comes to the serious issues of depression and anxiety. So it should not be surprising that the process of seeking help for mental illness typically results in one of two outcomes: students either blindly flounder in the sea of Dick’s House’s counseling or do not seek help at all.

In an atmosphere like ours, students need more than what Dartmouth offers. At a minimum, there should be clear access to a peer advisor group and to a more effective pipeline of professional counseling. I urge Dartmouth, Dick’s House and the student body to take steps toward addressing this gaping hole in the school’s support network.