Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Over the last 33 years, I have been intimately involved in campus mental health. During those 33 years, I have watched the ebb and flow of campus mental health as well as how we have talked about it. Now more than ever, campus mental health is dominated by the narrative of a crisis, painted as a dire picture of never-ending anxiety and depression among students, staff, and faculty.

While we must never minimize our own or other people’s struggles, I know firsthand that the current narrative of a campus mental health crisis suffers from not capturing the entire spectrum of experiences, especially our resilience and capacity to thrive in the face of ongoing adversity, threat, and ambiguity. We have opportunity to deconstruct the singular “crisis” narrative and consider more complex and nuanced understandings of campus mental health.

While we primarily hear of epidemic levels of anxiety and depression, what we know is that emotion falls across a continuum. Consider these:

Stress: Stress is characterized as upset feelings in response to challenges that require attention and effort. “I feel a lot of pressure because I have a big project due tomorrow.”

Emotionality: Emotionality is characterized by upset feelings in response to a situation that is occurring. “I’m really upset because I just received negative feedback from my supervisor.” 

Distress (where anxiety/depression occur): Distress is characterized by upset feelings that linger long after the original situation has ended. “I never do a good enough job. I’m so angry and disappointed with myself these past few months.” 

Crisis: Crisis is characterized by distress resulting in possible or actual threat to oneself or others, only sometimes due to the situation. “I give up. I see no purpose or point. I don’t care anymore.”  

Some of us live episodically or chronically managing symptoms of diagnosable anxiety and/or depression. The majority of us, in the majority of situations, manage stress and emotionality. Being upset about upsetting things is not necessarily a mental health crisis. Being upset is often a reasonable response to what are often unreasonable situations. 

It is crucial to acknowledge external factors that contribute to stress and emotionality. The current moment is fraught with a recent global pandemic, political turbulence, wars, systemic oppressions, and challenges brought about by the digital age. 

While these can exacerbate emotionality, they do not necessarily translate into a surge of clinical mental health problems like depression and anxiety. One can feel stress about things that are stressful without having diagnosable anxiety. Likewise, one can feel sadness about sad things and not have diagnosable depression.

As Denison University President Adam Weinberg stated, “We need assurance that mental health challenges are not a personal failing but a reasonable response to a challenging historical moment” (Weinberg, 2022). The assumption that emotional responses to external stressors are mental health crises does not support the complex interplay between our individual grit and resilience and the effect of environmental factors beyond our control. Assuming otherwise can also minimize those who really do live with and manage diagnosed anxiety and depression.

Contrary to the crisis-centric view, research (Volstad et al., 2020) indicates that a significant number of us adapt and cope with the transitions and stressors that are part of campus life. While it’s undeniable that mental health struggles exist and must be addressed, most of us are reasonably navigating these challenges. The need for a balanced perspective on mental health that acknowledges both challenges and successes is vital.  

How we frame the current emotional temperature on campus effects how we approach the issue. The New York Times (Saxbe, 2023) noted that what can be considered “problems of living” or “normative worries” have been reframed as “mental health crises.” Saxbe quotes Dr. Lucy Foulkes, an Oxford University psychologist, who noted that framing the struggles of life as mental health crises has dictated how “people view themselves in ways that become self-fulfilling” and “encourages people to view everyday challenges as insurmountable.”

 Empower Ourselves to Flourish 

The National College Health Assessment (NCHA) annually publishes national data noting that campus members struggle with significant mental health and well-being issues, including distress-level concerns. The NCHA also published data noting that the majority of the same people also see themselves as flourishing, reminding us that even when we struggle, we can simultaneously be doing well.

By shifting the prevalent narrative to recognize the multi-dimensional range of experiences on our campus, we are able to frame more supportive and realistic conversations about mental health, especially when we struggle. This involves including empowerment, skill-building, and resilience. This reframing can help us feel more prepared to manage the ongoing challenges of being in the world while supporting the foundational assumption that: “Life has struggle!”

In deconstructing the narrative of a mental health crisis on college campuses across the country, we must stay mindful not to minimize struggle while also highlighting our strengths and the positive steps many of us take in service of our well-being.  An integrated dialogue acknowledges inherent difficulties while celebrating growth and perseverance through adversity. 

We are remarkable! Let’s remind ourselves, expect this of ourselves, and remember that upsetting things reasonably feels upsetting. And at those times when we do experience distress, remember you are not alone and many campus resources are available to provide additional support!