Teszler: Turn Down the Heat

To truly address Dartmouth’s mental health crisis, a culture of burnout and excessive self-reliance must end.

by Max Teszler | 9/29/22 4:00am

So here we are again: a week of compounding tragedies — and the feeling that very little of substance is going to change. As a student body, the outpouring of grief for the loss of both Joshua Watson ‘22 and Sam Gawel ‘23 has been visceral and physical; I’ve never seen more communities and campus organizations reach out, offer space and check in. The recent hate crime against a graduate student has also weighed heavily on campus. Top college leaders joined in this chorus, organizing a community gathering this past Friday. 

This one-week wellspring of care — of slowing down, checking in, asking for help — should extend beyond just moments of tragedy. Yet I fear we’re all just expected to go back to the same Dartmouth we knew before. The same Dartmouth where it can feel like a daily battle to stay afloat and not fall behind. The same Dartmouth where burning yourself out seems requisite to even claim you’ve worked hard. The same Dartmouth where you’re expected to suffer it all in silence, because it feels like weakness to ask for help and it seems like someone else is always busier than you. Yes, Dartmouth can — and must — improve our still-lacking mental health infrastructure. But until a culture which routinely pushes students to their breaking points is addressed, our crisis cannot be fully solved.

In my freshman year, I remember constant repetition of the phrase “swimming duck syndrome.” The idea was that although most students look like they have it together, under the surface, they are furiously working to stay afloat. In my experience, the phrase was usually invoked as reassurance — a way of saying “see, everyone is overwhelmed!” and recognizing shared adversity. 

It instead should’ve been deeply unsettling. Yes, going to a college like Dartmouth will always be a rigorous and academically challenging experience for students. But overworking should never be mistaken for good, hard work. And we certainly shouldn’t hide challenges beneath the veneer of the ever-competent Dartmouth student, zipping from clubs to classes without a moment for ourselves. 

Unfortunately, we are not unique in this problem — what I’ll call a culture of burnout and self-reliance — among elite schools. A 2019 study of high school students revealed that “high-achieving schools” had two to three times the rate of anxiety and depression compared to average schools: their students were statistically an “at-risk” group for mental health conditions. Though there is no direct equivalent study for college students, we know that both teens and younger adults are facing a dizzying rise in rates of anxiety and depression.

Diving into the recent history of other Ivy League Schools, you can easily find similar moments to the one we’re facing now — a number of student deaths, followed by patchwork changes to mental health infrastructure. In the 2016-2017 school year, Cornell saw six suicides. In the same year, Columbia suffered seven. And both schools received near-failing grades in a mental health report released over a year later. The script is all too familiar. 

In the wake of these tragedies, doing “something” about mental health always rises to the forefront. Yes, fixing the mental health crisis includes direct changes to care.  We need to add more counselors and allow them to provide long-term therapy, which extends beyond a single 10 week term. Our disastrous medical leave policy must change. But a holistic look at the culture of the school is also necessary, and can be a serious solution. 

Some of this change is going to come from the student level — and I amply believe we can rise to the challenge. In the absence of a true institutional safety net here at Dartmouth, fellow students have become the backstop. Entire campus organizations like the Sexual Assault Peer Alliance and the Mental Health Student Union dedicate themselves to the wellbeing of their fellow students. 

Yet there is still so much fear of slowing down or simply asking for help. We push ourselves to do as many activities as possible — it’s a mark of social clout how many things you can list out when asked what you do on campus. Despite the resources we have, it makes you feel somehow lesser to use them. If you’ll bear with me for a second, I think there is something of a “built different '' mindset among the study body — offering care and understanding to those around us, but failing to do so for ourselves.

In this, I am as guilty as the rest. In the spring, I was an officer in the Dartmouth Outing Club and on the directorate of First Year Trips, while also taking an intensive lab class and doing lab research. It was fun, chaotic, rewarding — and completely unsustainable. And that ultimately manifested in a very real consequence. After repeated nights of little sleep, I suffered a bad car accident in which I, simply by chance, avoided life-threatening injuries. Although I was physically unhurt, I was badly shaken and fell further behind in my work. What I ultimately decided to do was withdraw from a class — and yet I still felt immensely guilty in doing so. Why was I, if I truly believed in support, care, and kindness? 

Yet students cannot fix Dartmouth’s burnout culture without every part of this school — from the administration down to individual professors — making it central in their work. Every decision and policy needs to be evaluated with this goal in mind. I welcome the recent announcement of the Oct. 21 “Day of Caring.” But the day to day academic and social environment also must shift, which takes smaller, more specific changes.   

For instance, at Dartmouth, organic chemistry is taught over two terms. However, at many of our peer schools which have quarter systems, the sequence is instead three courses. Organic chemistry will always be a challenging subject — but it doesn’t need to be as bad as it is here, where some students instead choose to spend their entire summer taking organic chemistry at another school. And no, this is not acceptable simply because at Dartmouth “things move quickly” or because it’s the way it’s always been. Practices like the way we teach orgo break our students — whether it be just in that one class or the accumulated stress of being pushed a little too far term after term.

Culture change can feel like a nebulous and undefinable reform. On the whole, it is. But when you break it down into many little changes, it suddenly becomes much more actionable. I don’t know the whole of what has to change at this school — I used the orgo example as a STEM major, but frankly have no clue what changes are needed in other academic departments or across all the organizations on campus. And I suspect nobody does entirely.

So that’s where true leadership from the top comes in. Our president, deans and other top leaders should make it clear that changing the culture is the priority, even if they understandably lack the knowledge to make every individual fix themselves. Maybe, just maybe, they are finally getting it.

Yes, this effort will include further reform to our mental health system — beyond just ordering more outside reports and consultations. But it needs to touch all aspects of this school, even some of the things we prize most about Dartmouth, like the exhilarating and overwhelming intensity of our 10  week terms. Events have made clear that this school is pushing students to — and past — their breaking points. Nothing short of reforming Dartmouth’s entire campus culture can be a solution.

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