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The Dartmouth
February 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dunleavy: It Starts with Us

Improving mental health at Dartmouth will require confronting students’ roles in feelings of loneliness and isolation that cause peers to struggle.

Dialogue around poor mental health on campus largely centers around Dartmouth as an institution, focusing on the administration’s failings, faulty healthcare and lack of academic support. The College deserves this scrutiny, and these criticisms have successfully pushed for institution-wide positive change, as seen by the College signing a four-year partnership with the youth mental health nonprofit JED foundation. Yet, these conversations around mental health frequently omit crucial parts of students’ well-being — peer support, perceived acceptance and belonging.

By excluding campus culture and social dynamics from the discourse, we fail to address our own roles in our peers’ mental health. Loneliness, isolation and social stress play substantial roles in young people’s mental health. To combat this, students must build a culture of compassion and sustained support. Students can provide peer support and social acceptance crucial to each other’s well-being by working together to dispel misconceptions surrounding the frequency of mental distress, discourage speech that negatively targets individuals or specific groups and maintain a consistent, baseline level of support and acceptance of one another.

The importance of peer support is nearly impossible to understate. The biggest obstacle to the average college student’s mental well-being comes not from academics, finances, romance or family, but from perceived peer acceptance. A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that peer acceptance, dependable friendships and ease of making new friends all significantly reduce depressive symptoms in young adults. Without that peer support and acceptance, students’ mental health drastically struggles. A Boston University study found that two-thirds of college students reported struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation. The impact of loneliness disproportionately affects students of color, further emphasizing the need for community and peer acceptance. A 2017 poll found that students of color are 16% more likely to feel isolated on campus and twice as likely not to seek mental health support compared to their white peers.

Of course, the academic pressures of a rigorous school like Dartmouth play a role in deteriorating mental health. However, there is the question of the chicken and the egg: What comes first, poor mental health or poor academic performance?  The American College Health Association’s assessment discovered that mental afflictions had the most significant adverse effect on academic success. That said, there is no doubt that academic struggles and mental distress in college students are closely related, and students do require support and accommodations from professors and Dartmouth as an institution, in addition to support from friends and the student body. 

This is not to say that students should shoulder the burden of their peers’ mental health struggles alone. The American College Health Association’s assessment further reported that 10.8% of students say concern for a troubled friend or family member negatively impacted their academic performance. This would surely feed into a cycle of continually escalating mental distress within the student body. For serious or extended circumstances, students need the formal support and treatment provided by clinicians. And luckily, as an institution, the College has taken significant steps to ensure this is possible — including increasing the number of counselors on call and providing free, confidential teletherapy to all students via Uwill. However, a campus culture that defends against loneliness and encourages peer acceptance would hopefully reduce the number of students who end up needing that professional help.

First, the student body must embrace mental illness as an ongoing and common struggle. Mental health struggles are widespread and likely far more prevalent than you might think: Nearly half of students nationally have received counseling or therapy for mental health concerns in their lifetime. Despite this shared experience, the Healthy Minds Network found that 45% of students perceive a public stigma towards mental illness — believing that most people would think less of someone receiving mental health treatment. Contrary to that perception, only 6% of students report a personal stigma, admitting they would think less of students who seek mental health treatment. Combating this public stigma will require working towards mutual compassion facilitated by openly sharing experiences with mental health struggles and treatment. 

Second, we must discourage hateful, targeting or discriminatory speech — especially the sensationalization of rumors. Fizz, an anonymous discussion app, illustrates this malady by reflecting attitudes and language in interpersonal relationships and conversations on campus. Though there is plenty of positive content shared on Fizz, the negative content is striking: fraternity rankings, judgments on sexual histories, polls on what’s considered attractive or unattractive, hateful and discriminatory posts about marginalized groups and targeted rumors — all of which contribute to feelings of isolation, loneliness and judgment from peers. 

Cultivating a collective disdain for negative speech would strengthen social connectivity and, in turn, build a campus with stronger friendships and creator connectivity. A 2022 University of Virginia study found that college students who refrained from engaging in negative gossip were much more likely to have stronger friendships and greater connectivity to others compared with peers that did participate in the spread of such gossip. Discouraging the spread of harmful speech online and in real life would increase students’ feelings of connectivity to other students and the Dartmouth community — reducing stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.  

Third, we must emphasize proactive over reactive support for other students. Following tragedies this academic year, professions of empathy and support soared on social media apps like Instagram and Fizz, with people posting their own stories or offering themselves up as a helping hand and ear. However, it only took a few days for the status quo of social stratification and derogatory comments to return to Fizz. If that peer support isn’t sustained, it may be considered fleeting or ingenuine — or simply be forgotten.

Accepting a degree of personal responsibility for the feelings of isolation and loneliness felt by your peers is daunting. It requires becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of curbing social behavior unconsciously reinforced by unhealthy social norms. Only once we address our own role in shaping Dartmouth’s culture — including social pressures and norms that favor stress, isolation and loneliness — can they change Dartmouth’s culture to one where students feel accepted and cared for by their peers.