It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon on Columbia’s campus. Pristine buildings stand against a canvas of flawless blue. But staring out at the line where stone meets sky, I start to wish that Low Beach would turn into an ocean that could wash me away.
I have depression. So do many other people at Columbia. This is not a secret. Especially following last year’s events, mental health has been a hot topic at this school—but I think even student dialogue sometimes misses the mark when it comes to addressing it.
I often hear people insinuating that merely stopping the stigma and providing adequate therapeutic resources for students would somehow “solve” the mental illness problem. But simply talking about mental illness—especially with other mentally ill people—can both trivialize and encourage dangerous behaviors.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t normalize emotional honesty. Moreover, you can absolutely be experiencing real pain and you can need help without a diagnosis. But mental illness itself should not become normalized. It should be understood, supported, and treated to the extent that it can be.
This can start with finally acknowledging that mental illness is a sickness like any other. Depression sometimes manifests itself as physical pain, but I don’t get mad at it anymore. In therapy I’m learning to ride the waves, to accept my emotions and perceptions as they come while also seeing them as they are.
After quickly using up my eight sessions at Barnard’s Furman Counseling Center, I finally started seeing a therapist I found on my own and whom my family pays for. However, many students at this school cannot afford the time, money, and energy that therapy requires, and therefore Columbia needs to provide immediate, accessible treatment here on campus. For example, CPS should offer appointments immediately, or at least within 24 hours, for students who need them rather than have them wait weeks. From a logistical standpoint, Columbia’s massive endowment could stand to take a bit of a dent for the sake of hiring more staff. Columbia could also change its policies for students who take time off, making it easier for students to take much-needed breaks.
Resources like Columbia’s recently deleted “calculate your free time” tool, which suggested an extremely unhealthy balance of activities, display a startling disparity between the administration’s expectations and the realities of lived experience, especially for students with mental illnesses (or other struggles that come part and parcel with living in this flawed universe).
There are things we as students can do, too. We can value friendships over homework and stop canceling on our friends so much, start making more art, and stop glamorizing unhealthy sleep schedules and stress culture.
Solutions lie in concrete actions and programming, responses to what we know, and openness to learning more, and I believe that creating resources that address the lived experience and systemic roots of mental illness is one of the most important tasks our school and our generation are faced with today. Mental illness threatens every demographic group, some more acutely than others. Onein five New Yorkers suffer from a mental illness—it’s an epidemic.
But I believe we are at a critical juncture, both at our school and in history, at which we can choose to make a change in the cycle of mental illness that is consuming a huge percentage of our population. Maybe we won’t change things for our generation, but I believe we can create a world where our children and our children’s children won’t have to experience the tidal waves that plague so many of us. Blame it on information overload; blame it on increased expectations and more uncertain futures for today’s youth; blame it on politics, modernity, structural and systemic flaws. Find the reason, minds of Columbia University, and make a change.
Still, even with all the resources in the world at your fingertips, sometimes the going just gets really tough and all you can do is wait out the storm. If you’re in the storm now, you’re not alone.
From my perch on Low Steps, I feel the October wind on my face. I am conscious of the weight of my own loneliness and also of the loneliness around me. But the light of the setting sun and the sound of tolling bells remind me that it’ll be alright. Or it won’t. But maybe it can be, someday.
This world, this place, there’s so much beauty here. Small acts of kindness, a stranger’s smile, the sound of birdsong. A choir singing on the steps, harmony against the sounds of sirens. A friend’s face appearing through the trees. Minds thinking through tangled problems, creating new worlds with their hands. And beyond, the city, pulsing with light.
Yes, it’s a messed-up world. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with Columbia, with the planet, with me, with all of us. But those bursts of harmony, those are worth staying alive for. They are touches of whatever divine you believe in, whether that’s love or God or a great cup of coffee, that put us here for a reason or for no reason other than to try to discern a reason and to help each other along the way.
We can help each other. We’re going to make the world what it will be tomorrow, me and you and all of us.
We’re never going to be completely healed and nothing will ever be perfect. But you and me, we can get better.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a junior at Barnard College studying English, creative writing, and psychology. She sometimes moonlights as a singer-songwriter. The Idealist runs alternate Fridays.
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