Oberlin Blogs

Back At It

October 23, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

It has been over a month since my last blog post y'all, so I do offer my sincerest apologies. So much has been going on: classes, work, student organizations, meetings, professional development and, well, you know, sleep and meals slip in there sometimes too. In the seven full weeks of this semester that I have accomplished, this eighth week, also known as Fall Break, is the first deep breath I have taken since early September.

Many of my friends and I are trying to figure out what to call this phenomenon of the perpetually overcommitted college student. From the "busy bee syndrome" to the "overworked and underpaid conundrum" to "Le Struggle à Oberlin," all of us are feeling (to varying extents) the consequences of surviving here at Oberlin. It is a taboo topic--talking about survival at Oberlin--because it can be hard to admit that the privilege of attending a private, liberal arts institution of higher learning has its respective challenges as well.

Some of these challenges have more feasible solutions that can happen on the individual level while others are huge social issues that demand a little more tenacity in addressing them properly and efficiently. What I want to spend some time reflecting on right now is mental health on campus, specifically for returning folks. A considerable amount of research discusses what has been referred to as the College Student Mental Health Crisis (CSMHC).

Mental Health In Context
Let's get some foundational understandings of mental health. First, it can be a level of psychological well-being referring to the "psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment."

Dr. Gregg Henriques is one of many scholars easily searchable on the internet who writes about the mental health experiences of undergraduates. It is a phenomenon validated by reports of college students showing greater levels of stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and poorer sleep patterns than any other time in our national history (Henriques, 2014). He breaks down the crisis in three broad frames: (1) broad societal considerations; (2) generational considerations and (3) considerations specific to college and university life. Here are some of his more compelling points about what is affecting college students' mental health:

  • Economic and financial pressures
  • Problematic attitudes towards mental illness
  • Psychopharmacology and the rise of the disease-pill model of mental illness
  • Failure of the education/socialization system
  • Emergence of approaching adulthood
  • Dramatic transition to college
  • Intense academic pressures to succeed
  • Massively increased accessibility to college (of more diverse student populations)
  • Poor handling of mental health issues on college campuses

Oberlin-Specific Concerns
Of particular relevance to Oberlin are perhaps the most visible concerns of economic and financial pressures and the intense academic pressures to succeed. Oberlin is a great space for a lot of things, but it is also a place that can cause many students to constantly wonder when the rug will be pulled from beneath them either due to financial concerns or not rising to the occasion academically. I often find that the weight of the fear from when that rug will be pulled is a major source of anxiety, stress and identity crisis for a lot of people that is not always talked about. It is hard to speak on this. With the range of needs that Obies have, the variety of approaches needed to address those concerns are vast. I get that it is no small order, but something has to be done.

Another significant point for me is the massively increased accessibility to college, which essentially refers to the demographics of diversity at post-secondary institutions. Now that more women, students of color, LGBQTIA communities, students with different abilities and capabilities are in institutions of higher learning, the demands for mental health services and programs look vastly different.

The traditional approaches of white Western psychology are not sufficient enough to serve the spectrum of people who exist on college campuses whose experiences often go silent. One of my courses this semester is "A Seminar in Social Psychology: An African American Personality," and it has affirmed the following truth for me. My cultural positioning, racial experiences and construction of identities have to be accounted for in terms of how I heal, grieve and rebuild my mental space. I need options (in the very least) about how to create a home within a home that is somewhere where I can seek refuge, be supported and not drown from the overload of academic and non-academic work that is forced upon me.

Community Care AND Self Care
One of my favorite African proverbs is an Asante proverb that says "I am because we are and therefore we are because I am." I love this proverb so much because it helps me to stop perpetuating the idea that I as an individual exist outside of my communities. It helps me to validate the reality that I am good when my communities are good; I am at peace when my folks are taken care of; I share in their struggles, success and growth and they are a part of mine.

Looking back on my freshman year, I did not understand how intertwined my sense of mental wellness is to my people that I love. As I experienced severe stress, anxiety and even mild depression for a time, I struggled to find ways to make the resources on campus (which some do exist) work for me. I talked to deans, had honest conversations with caring professors and spent a lot of alone time trying to figure out what caring for me meant. What worked best for me was a combination of reaching out to people on campus and back at home to figure out what things/activities can get me to a mythical happy place.

My friends have been particularly influential to me in thinking about ways to face hard realities. They have asked me to address things like my psychological trauma; how I want to be loved as person/friend/significant other; the politics of admitting reaching a breaking point, and even reaching a critical point of accepting my brokenness and needing to heal in multiple ways. For those hard questions, I am forever grateful because it made me understand my mental state on this campus in a much clearer way.

Moving Forward
Here comes the optimism. I like hugs... affectionate, warm, lasting and energy-transferring hugs. I enjoy holding hands and placing my head on another person's head because that is how I share energy, communicate love and support someone non-verbally. When I have reached my low points and my breaking points, I tend to isolate or think that a 40-minute counseling meeting might work, but it does not always do what I need it to.

I get my friends together, we make smoothies, we watch movies, we complain together, we sit outside together, we are just TOGETHER. We talk about what we think we are missing and we discover together that we have some growing to do, and in that moment we experience growth. I think seeing that process repeated in my community has been the most beautifully positive thing for my mental health.

My suggestions? Honestly, I do not have anything more concrete other than just sharing my thoughts all throughout this post. There is a ton of organizing on campus around issues of mental health and support and I am thankful for that going on. I also think it is important for communities, especially communities of color, to figure out how we need to heal and come together for ourselves as well. I encourage all dialogue and action around that to continue. Let's all come together, love and support one another and survive Oberlin together.

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