As someone who has dealt with mental health issues during her time at Penn, I’ve found the recent discussion about mental health at Penn not only important but strikingly relevant to my own life. In the wake of two recent suicides and four total student deaths, the Penn community has been coming together to discuss the “how” and the “why” of these events. While I believe issues such as space for CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) and support systems are important, I also think there is something to be said about the culture here at Penn and how it’s contributing to the problem.
It seems that here at Penn we always strive to be the best, and that even spills over into our leisure time. I’ve personally had trouble finding a club or activity that fits my interests that doesn’t involve running for your position, being harshly initiated, a series of interviews, or some other evaluative measure. I am evaluated all the time in my classes, whether by raw score or by way of the curve, and sometimes I just want to belong to something that doesn’t attach a label to me of “good enough” or otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that’s the real world. Some things, like student government, require some sort of election, and we’d be bothered if they didn’t. I know that in business, or law, or whatever we Quakers choose to dive into, there will be evaluation, and there will be winners and losers. But for extracurriculars, I feel that there would be a lot less stress at Penn if people weren’t constantly being measured, evaluated, and held under a microscope for scrutiny. I’d love to be able to meet with people who are like me and create real change in the university community without having to survive five rounds of interviews. I know all clubs aren’t like this, but a good portion are.
My first couple semesters at Penn were rough, after facing repeated rejection from groups on campus. I began to wonder if I really was “good enough” to join anything anywhere on campus, and even today I’m still trying to find where my niche is. If it’s been hard for me, I can only imagine how many students have felt the same way. Combine this with the academic pressures already imposed upon Penn students, and many students are set up to feel frustrated and defeated from day one.
This means that we often struggle to truly be happy for those around us because their success often means our failure. It’s hard to be happy for your best friend when she gets “the job” because it means that you probably won’t get it. It’s hard to genuinely congratulate a friend on his A+ on the midterm because now you know you’ll be fighting him on the curve for the final. Conversely, celebrating your successes makes you feel as if you’re bragging. I feel sometimes that if I talk about something I’ve done well, everyone’s happiness for me is fabricated because I’ve reminded them of the things they didn’t win/positions they lost/exams they didn’t do well on.
All of these things individually are part of life, but when combined with the academic pressures, social pressures, and the general confusion and loss of identity that is college, they make for a burden that can be hard to bear at times.
I don’t know what the answer is to Penn’s recent problem with mental health. I think that there are a lot of factors that have contributed, some of which are inevitable, and there will be no band-aid to the issue. I do think, however, that we should take a critical look at our (at times) cutthroat culture and ask ourselves if there is anything we can do to change it. Inside the classroom and inside the workplace, there are bound to be feelings of competition. In the words of a former teacher, we know to “leave our feelings at the door.” But when we exit, can we pick them up again and become Quakers, not competitors?