The common response of goal-oriented and hyperambitious Princeton students, throughout all their responsibilities and occasional setbacks, is to struggle through and say to everyone: “I’m fine.”
But in an intimate setting on the Friday evening before midterms, a half-dozen students acknowledged their feelings of failure and anxiety, and described how the culture of “I’m fine” can stigmatize those who seek help for stress and other mental issues.
The gathering was the capstone of Mental Health Awareness Week, a series of events sponsored by the Sustained Dialogue student group and the Undergraduate Student Government. “One of the issues at Princeton is that the question ‘Where do I belong here?’ is often framed as ‘Where do I want to end up?’” said USG president Bruce Easop ’13. The success-driven mindset leaves little room for students to enjoy their college experience, he said.
Easop joined with senior Addie Darling and juniors Shirley Gao, Maia Ten Brink, Shehzad Ukani, and Jamie Joseph to share their struggles with issues such as depression, failure, and sexual orientation — and overall, how to reconcile happiness and health with ambitions and achievements.
“I hear people say, ‘I’m going to work hard, not sleep, and be miserable, but it’s only for these four years, and then I’ll be happy,’” said Gao. “But I also see a lot of people graduate from Princeton and get into super-structured career advancement paths — and they do the same thing over again.”
Brink told of a preceptor who began a precept “by slamming his hands on the table and saying, ‘You guys have to be happy now. You’re never going to happy in the future if you don’t start [being] happy now.’ No one else has ever said that to me here.”
But happiness at Princeton, students agreed, often is tied to accomplishments.
“If we’re not getting graded or achieving something,” said Darling, “it’s hard to convince ourselves that it’s something worth doing.”
“And how do we make sense of failure?” asked Eleanor Meegoda ’12, the leader of Lotus Café, a student group that discusses mental health and happiness. Meegoda raised the issue of how seeking help for mental-health issues can undercut the quest to appear successful, thus representing a “failure” to cope with stress.
“You don’t want to admit you have had any missteps, because everyone else around you seems to have made none of the same mistakes,” said Joseph. “That mental pressure is something everyone feels, but no one talks about.”
Ukani agreed, saying if there were one message he’d like to get across to the student body, it would be that “there is absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling so composed and perfect. It is OK to not feel fine.”