CONTENT WARNING: Mental Health, Depression, Anxiety, Suicide
I may be abroad this semester, but I haven’t forgotten the constant talk about mental health issues at Vanderbilt that filled my first two years of college. “Mental health” has become a sort of buzzword, the kind of term that everyone knows, and everyone also understands how bad it is at our school. In many circles, the poor mental health of Vanderbilt students has become nothing more than a cruel joke; all you have to do is scroll through the Dank New Rand Memes page on Facebook to figure that out. Haha, mental health on campus is shit. Lol when your GPA is falling, you’re depressed, and you eat literal garbage. Whether you, one of your friends, or one of your family members struggles with poor mental health, you probably know the problems associated with it. And yet, what can you do? Depression and anxiety are not like the common cold; you can’t just pop some Tylenols and expect everything to be ok, obviously. It’s difficult to medicate, but then why do we try to self-medicate?
No, I’m not referring to prescription antidepressants or anti-anxiety pills, both of which have had mixed results among mental health patients. No, I’m not referring to therapy sessions either; I don’t deny that there are ways to try and cope with mental health issues in general. What I am saying is that the culture of elite institutions such as Vanderbilt encourage us to try and self-medicate our own mental health issues in ways that end up doing more harm than good.
“Work hard, play hard,” they say. That’s what Vandy is known for. We are an elite academic institution, of course, but we also like to party. Vandy is the ideal place to wake up at 8am either to run over to Central library and crack open the textbooks or to take five shots of Smirnoff and then head over to tailgates. You can do both, that’s what we do at Vandy, but is that culture conducive to positive mental health?
Face it, we all put on a façade as soon as we walk out of our dorm room, and this façade is our form of self-medication. We don’t face our demons; we bury them. Deep down below all of our coursework, extracurriculars, lit pregames, and internship interviews. We pretend that we are so put together, and that we can perfectly balance taking a rigorous course load at a competitive institution such as ours and living the good life at an SEC school in music city. We act like we are incredibly laid back about it all, too. Yeah, I have a test tomorrow, but I’m not worried about it. No, I didn’t study, but the professor is suuuuuuper chill. But I go out before every test! It’s just for good luck, not because I’m anxious. Why do we pretend to be so relaxed even when some mornings we are so stressed we can’t even physically get out of bed? Why do we continue to pregame chasing handle pulls of tequila with Orange Fanta even though all we want to do is take a nap because we are exhausted from the week? Why do we go on and on about how Greek life at Vandy isn’t nearly as hierarchical as other schools and how we are super chill about it here even when we are still so concerned about where our organizations are “ranked” and we continue to wear our Greek letters as a mark of who we are? Do Kappas usually hang out with Sig Chis? Not really, Thetas do though, I think. Have you met her? She’s in KD I’m sure you know her. Dude, no way those guys are above us. Our tailgates are wayyyy more lit. Why do we drown our problems with alcohol and drugs when all we want to do is lay in bed and cry?
Too often, we perpetuate a culture that says you should be happy all the time. After all, we have the happiest students, don’t we? You should be grateful that you are here, I mean, this is a great school! And too often we engage in a competition about who is the most chill or who has the most fun or who is the most involved on campus or who is the most happy here. The Outstanding Senior awards are coming up, and of course we always love to praise the people who are in every club that one could possibly join, that is, until we make ourselves feel like shit for not being super involved like them. But we still put on our façade: Haha yeah I wish I could come but I just got back from a career fair and now I have to write a paper lol I have ZERO free time.
I am not here to state that Vanderbilt should not be competitive. I am not telling you to quit all your clubs on campus. I am not trying to stop you from going out on weekends, and I certainly have no problem with you staying in your Greek organizations. But there comes a time when we need to question the entire culture on campus that discourages people from saying how they really feel, and too often it is the tragic loss of a cherished individual from our beloved community that makes us reexamine the social issues that exist at our school. And too often we arrive at the conclusion that there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a cutthroat school, and it’s just a high-pressure atmosphere.
I don’t claim to have all the answers that are going to transform the state of mental health at Vandy, but perhaps we could start by being honest. How was your day? Honestly, not great. Did you go out last Saturday? No, it was a rough day for me, I just slept in. Maybe then we can be more supportive of our peers. Hey I’m really stressed out and crying can you come help? Of course, I’ll be right over. Maybe after that we can take that empathy into our everyday actions. Hey, I’m about to go to a career fair, do you wanna come with me? It’s ok, I have no idea how the real world works either but at least we can be confused together lol. Nobody can be happy all the time, nobody can be so put together all the time, and nobody can know everything. A lifestyle of study, drink, study some more is not healthy; we shouldn’t be trying to minimize our free time. We are flawed beings and we should start being true to ourselves so that maybe, just maybe, we can make Vanderbilt a more supportive place even as we rise in the national university rankings.
So next time you’re walking by Rand and you see someone walking your direction, I challenge you to say hello to them. In fact, I challenge you to say hello to everyone you see. Because that student walking in front of you is more than just a FIJI, ADPi, Melodore, VUceptor, Kissam RA, or student athlete. That student is a person, and you have no idea what they could be going through. And building a more supportive community at Vanderbilt starts with you. Vanderbilt, don’t forget to prioritize yourself. Not your GPA or your involvement or your social status or your number of hookups. No, Vanderbilt, remember to take care of yourself. And if it is ever too much to handle, we’ll be there for you. Remember, it is not your fault, and you are not alone. We all have our flaws and our failures, and even if we haven’t experienced severe mental health issues, we have all felt hopeless and scared at some point. But if we lean on each other, if we take some time for ourselves, and if we start seeing each other as people with feelings rather than members of larger organizations, maybe someday we will never have to awaken to another dreadful and heart wrenching email. Maybe if we all remind ourselves that life at Vanderbilt isn’t always the perfect, beautiful dream that the Princeton Review makes it out to be, those of us who are wondering why we aren’t happy will feel less alone. Maybe someday we can be just a little more genuine in our everyday interactions, and maybe that will help us build a stronger community. Vanderbilt is a fantastic institution, but once we fix our culture, it will be that much better. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are painful illnesses that suck the life out of us, but the culture that makes us bury those problems so that nobody will ever know they are there, that is the real disease on our campus. But it’s a disease we can rid ourselves of.