It’s been hard to miss the photos from the “What I Be” project popping up on our newsfeeds and around campus these past weeks: up-close and intensely personal shots of fellow students staring unapologetically into the camera, with their deepest insecurities scrawled onto their skin in capital letters. It’s a little startling to find content this raw and emotionally stirring interspersed with the latest version of the “Harlem Shake”, or next to a poster for a Quipfire show, but the response so far, at least by the online community, has been surprisingly impressive. Obviously, “likes” and comments aren’t the best ways to measure depth of social change, but it’s safe to say that the project is getting some much needed attention.
Mental Health Week— the USG’s official campaign to raise mental health awareness through a website and various events and projects on campus — is a cause I find deeply relevant to myself and to the Princeton community. Having struggled personally, and watched so many people I love struggle with mental imbalance, I can now safely say that I would choose a broken leg over mental illness. A quick X-ray to show you the section of bone that is snapped, and you can slap it into a nice and highly visible cast, hobbling around on crutches knowing that in a few months’ time you’ll be good as new. Mental illness, on the other hand, is infuriatingly covert and slippery. It sneaks up behind you and subtly sabotages your experience of reality, with only vague warning signs for the world to see.
Few of us, either here in the Orange Bubble or in Western culture more generally, pay enough attention to the wellbeing of our minds, which—it is being increasingly proven—hugely feeds into the health of our bodies. We schedule time every day to go to the gym, and diligently drag ourselves to the dentist every 6 months, yet we find it hard to justify taking even ten minutes off to reorganize our inner world and grapple with the way we feel. Instead, we just reorganize our desks.
Princeton professor Christy Wampole wrote recently in the New York Times that we live in an age of irony. Our generation takes everything with a hint of snark and is too afraid of looking stupid to truly live, or be earnestly passionate about what we do and who we are. She writes:
“Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement…It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.”
While Wampole did not specifically apply it to psychology or emotional health, the ironic guise she describes I believe is one of the primary mechanisms of emotional avoidance employed by our generation. Witty remarks, feigned indifference and eye-rolls allow us to skirt around, rather than face up to, the deepest inner challenges—fear, sadness, loneliness—that all humans share, whether they will admit it or not. The second avoidance mechanism, which is particularly prominent at Princeton and perhaps even more insidious as it’s conventionally deemed praiseworthy, is our compulsive need to be busy and productive.
But what’s wrong with avoidance? Why collide with an object if you can just go around it? Isn’t it completely rational? Sadly, when that happens to be uncomfortable emotions, the answer is not really. It has taken me a great deal of introspection and months working with a wonderful therapist to realize that certain perfectly logical rationalizations I make in my brain—going to the gym obsessively, over-scheduling myself, counting and restricting my calories, and plastering on a mask of put-together-ness even when I feel like shit—are all (not so) clever strategies I’ve concocted to avoid what I’m really feeling: loneliness, anxiety about uncertainty, over-tiredness, fear of failure. Emotions only grow larger the more you push them away.
The avoidance strategies we construct for ourselves, especially here at Princeton with our exceedingly clever and imaginative brains, are often so elaborate and seemingly rational that peeling them away to see what’s underneath can seem impossible, not to mention painful and unnecessary. Many find it far easier—myself included, and I have to consciously fight this impulse every single day—to carry on by sitting stubbornly atop the rug they’ve swept their deepest fears beneath. And this fact, I would argue, is why many students won’t, or perhaps can’t, take Mental Health Week campaigns such as the “What I Be” project earnestly enough to prompt a true revolution in the culture surrounding mental wellbeing at Princeton. It is too intentionally intense, raw, and even intimidating. It asks to be largely avoided or ignored.
As I hope I’ve already made clear, I feel that the principles of compassion, confidence and openness that Mental Health Week promotes are deeply important. I’m incredibly glad that the USG has put so much energy into creating a website and thinking outside the box as to how to tackle a large and sensitive issue; for example, through art in the form of the “What I Be” project. But the USG has some serious limitations — even though it can send campus-wide emails to every students’ inbox, its influence on students is not very wide ranging, and its credibility is by no means unanimously socially accepted.
So I have to be honest: I’m still having some difficulty in relating to Mental Health Week’s official message. And if I am, it’s likely many others are too. When I first scrolled through the website, mindfulprinceton.org, reading supposedly uplifting blog posts by students, CPS, and the Dean’s Office, a knot of something nasty began to writhe around in my stomach. I wanted to shut my laptop and move on to something else, to escape the uncomfortable aura that had set in. Something about the psychological lingo scattered throughout the pages inspires in me a kind of irrational dread. “Mood disorders,” “suicidal thoughts,” “antidepressants,” “professional help”; these demons in the closet are things that only happen to crazy people. Things that are, of course, unfortunate, but have nothing to do with me.
This stigma associated with psychiatric jargon—which is not just a Princeton problem—makes issues of mental health seem more scary and difficult to relate to than they need to be. The term “disorder” automatically implies something negative, when really it is used as a crude label when it comes to getting treatment (and billing for said treatment) in the system of Western psychiatry. And while the labels may be new, the problems are not; people have been dealing with mental issues for as long as they have had brains. The line between what is personality trait and a clinical “disorder” is impossible to define; each ‘problem’ is just one side of the same coin. My diagnosis of a “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” is just another way of saying I’m an intelligent person with a highly active and imaginative mind that often runs away with me and gets overloaded, if I allow it to. All of those attributes are also what make me a good critical thinker, writer and artist. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.”
And while I truly admire the bravery of those who put themselves and their vulnerabilities forward to be exposed as part of California photographer Steve Rosenfield’s “What I Be” project, particularly those who wrote moving and revealing personal statements to accompany their images, I can’t help but wonder whether this approach is too intense for the majority of students who are intimidated by with the idea of aggressive, deep feelings. By equating issues of “mental health” with extreme displays of emotion, the project could actually be further alienating those who are already reluctant to talk earnestly about their personal issues, thus solidifying an “us versus them” mentality that prevents wider identification and discussion of mental imbalance.
Some of the messages written by the photographer on the students’ bodies are so cryptic it becomes hard to understand what exactly they’re revealing, especially if you cannot read the accompanying explanatory statements. One of my friends, who participated in the project, said that the artist ultimately made the decision of what to write across her forehead, and she didn’t feel comfortable with his choice of words. That’s not good. After all, shouldn’t this be a project about empowering each individual and giving them a voice, rather than fitting their story into this particular artist’s framework?
I also can’t help but think that there was just a hint of narcissism involved for some portion of the participants. After all, who wouldn’t want a snap of a professionally lit complexion and soulful eyes? Reading the comments on Facebook, it’s clear to me that many people simply saw their friend’s picture, “liked” it and posted something offhand about how “sassy” or “fierce” they look. It’s supportive, yes, but not exactly fostering the kind of dialogue and exchange we really need. Superficial comments and detached, media-based campaigns, while increasing awareness on a basic level, do not allow for deeper conversations and individual transformations.
The “What I Be” project also brings me to a key issue with the mental health awareness campaign in general: its clear divisiveness along gender lines. At the “What I Be” public lecture, the artist told us that the participants photographed were 70% women. For whatever reason—genetics, societal stigma, an entrenched culture of macho-ness and fear of embarrassment are just a few reasons I can think of—a large portion of the male contingent just doesn’t feel comfortable engaging with these topics, especially not openly. And the last thing Mental Health Week wants to do is inadvertently push away those (both male and female alike) who are intimidated by or have negative stereotypes about people with loud and intense feelings. Being unhappy does not mean you have to be a wretched soul ridden with angst. Surely, there must be some other softer approaches to raising awareness, and milder ways of characterizing mental health, that do not involve sullen stares and sharpies, or bullet point lists of clinical symptoms to look out for in your friends.
Ultimately, true change in the culture surrounding mental health will need to come from the bottom up. When we start to admire and respect those who are emotionally open and honest—even think they are “cool”. When we become genuinely more open with ourselves and others, and people can feel safe to admit they are struggling, or even realize they are struggling at all. It’s not going to happen automatically, and a war of attrition is perhaps the best strategy—so it’s great that the USG is putting its priorities in the right place and taking some good steps forward. I just wonder how we can more effectively reach those who are more moderate in their beliefs and viscerally alarmed by the language of psychiatry or by intensity of expression; those who are so set in their ways that they won’t know something is wrong until it goes terribly wrong and culminates in some form of breakdown, whether it be now in college or later on in life.
The more individuals can talk about their mental health experiences with friends and classmates, who trust and can relate to them, on a daily basis, the more we can together erode the stigma that makes “mental health” sound so serious, alien and official a topic. I know we all have to learn from our mistakes, but learning to value your mental health isn’t something you should have to learn from experience, like burning your hand on a stove. We’re much too smart for that.