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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

A call to action: Middlebury, it’s time to prioritize our mental healthcare

We are often told that college is a seminal period of our lives; that it is the time in which we grow the most because we leave our home communities, live on our own, and are able to fail and thrive in a liberal academic environment. We hold as self-evident that excelling in classes, assignments, and extracurricular activities will contribute to our personal growth and prepare us to face the challenges of the “real world.”

Yet, when the real world presented itself to me in the form of  major depression in the fall of my first year at Middlebury, there was little from what I learned in class that equipped me with the tools to recognize, engage and deal constructively with the emotional challenges I was facing. In 2017, I withdrew from college to take care of myself. I couldn’t help but feel I was a failure for not living up to my peers’ and the college’s expectations. Not only did I think I was not worthy of returning, I was certain that this struggle was mine alone.

While struggles like mine can appear individual and inconsequential, they are deeply rooted in our collective ideas of what constitutes a normal college experience. High stress, sleep deprivation, as well as alcohol and substance abuse are perceived not only as inevitable, but as necessary to ensure we mature. Paradoxically, comprehensive conversations about their impacts on our mental wellbeing are repeatedly neglected and dismissed. With our struggles left unsaid, in fear that we are the only ones going through them and that no one else can understand us, we find ourselves burdened with figuring out how to make sense of our experiences alone. It is an impossible feeling.

The scale of struggling with mental health in college is often lost on us. According to the American College Health Association, three out of five students will experience mental health issues at one point of their college career, most often in the form of depression or anxiety. For two out of five students, these issues will be so severe as to significantly impair their ability to function socially and academically. Despite the severity of these conditions, the study reports that only a small percentage of students will seek help at their college’s counseling centers. Worryingly, at Middlebury, when students do attempt to ask for institutional help, they risk being met with overworked or unavailable resources.

This is too important an issue not be comprehensively and urgently addressed in all institutional levels at our school, because neglecting our emotional wellbeing has dire consequences. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age students, and over 75% of lifetime mental health conditions will develop by age 24 with lifelong implications if not diagnosed and treated early.

While it is imperative to strengthen and better fund Parton Health Center, it is equally necessary to find other ways to increase our institutional support network. Providing comprehensive access to a quality standard of institutional care should not come at the expense of overworking our counsellors or residential staff, nor the student body itself.  We must stop approaching mental health from a crisis-intervention perspective, instead finding ways to incorporate policies that can promote long-term emotional resilience. It is not enough to assume that academic excellence by virtue of itself will allow us to deal with rejection, sadness, happiness, frustration and the many other emotions  that are inherent in all our life experiences.

Conversations that shift the paradigm of mental healthcare as an individual problem are in order for all of us; after all, this is an issue in which everyone in our community has the power to make a change. However, it is the college as an institution that has the most ability and the greatest responsibility of leading change by example. These efforts are by no means utopian. Thoughtful, proactive and effective policies towards emotional resilience have been adopted successfully elsewhere. We do not need to look further than Main Street to find great examples: The Counseling Services of Addison County (CSAC) offers annually a “Mental Health First Aid Training” open to the community. In addition, they recently launched the “OK. You’ve Got This” Project, working with high schools in Middlebury to promote emotional resilience and teach positive coping strategies to students as a way to proactively address mental health and substance abuse.

We do so much good in our community already. But it’s time we take it a step further as an institution.

As for those who may be struggling now, I urge you to hear my message. Asking for help is hard, but you and your concerns are valid. They will always be. Do not be afraid to reach out to your advisor, your dean, your peer. It made a difference for me; I came back after a year-and-a-half medical leave to realize I was a part of this community all along, even when I did not feel well. It is our collective duty to be there for each other. Remember, you are not alone.

Arthur Martins is in the class of 2022.5.