‘Taking care of your mental-emotional well-being is not seen as valued on this campus, and … in our society at large’

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From left, Issa Mudashiru ’25, Chioma Ugwonali ’24, and Isaac Lunar ’24
Sameer A. Khan h’21/Fotobuddy


Liz Daugherty: Concerns have been rising about student mental health on college campuses for the past few years — perhaps ramping up, if not starting, with the pandemic — and certainly moving beyond it. Princeton is no exception. To examine the issue, PAW asked three students who have been leaders and mentors in this area to discuss what’s going on, what they’re seeing, and what can be done to help.

So thank you, all three of you, for making the time to do this today. We really appreciate it. Let’s start with a little background about each of you. Can you each give your name and a little bit about yourself, including anything you do involving mental health on campus? 

Isaac Lunar ’24: Yeah, I’ll go first. My name is Isaac Lunar. I am in the great Class of 2024, resident of Forbes. Come from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. And concerning anything about mental health that I do here on campus, I used to be in the USG’s Mental Health Initiative a couple years back. I have since left that and now do Letters to Strangers as a co-president to that. And in addition, I do a lot of mentoring for students on campus through programs such as Siff-P and Pump, which I believe also has a pretty vital mental health component to that. 

Chioma Ugwonali ’24: I’m Chioma Ugwonali, use she/her pronouns. I am a senior from Arlington, Texas. Among many roles on campus, I am an RCA for Butler College, a peer health adviser, and I’ve also been part of the team organizing Community Care Day, which launched this year. I’m part of the University mental health task force, the student health advisory committee, and just a listening ear, I guess, around for peers on campus.

Issa Mudashiru ’25: Awesome. I am Issa Mudashiru. I’m a junior from Bethesda, Maryland, or the D.C. area, as I often refer to my little home as. I’m also a player for the men’s soccer team. And in relation to mental health resources on campus, I’m a student athlete wellness leader, and I’m also very involved with the Carl A. Field Center, especially with their initiative called the Collective Care series, where we seek to center well being for individuals on campus that belong to underrepresented marginalized communities. And yeah, that’s a bit about me.

LD: So what is the problem as you see it regarding student mental health here at Princeton?

CU: I think there is a gap in between the resources that the university offers, students’ perception of available resources, and student mental health. And that’s not even to get into the mental health and the well-being of our staff, faculty, and administrators, who I think are integral to student mental health and overall campus well-being. But often I hear students share grievances or complain about the lack of mental health resources or not feeling connected to campus, not feeling heard or seen or appreciated by administrators outside of their capacities as a student. And it’s really disheartening being in a lot of spaces with administrators and other students who are heavily involved in mental health and trying to bolster those resources and knowing what a lot of students feel, I’ve heard the word “hopeless” be used to describe this perception, this isolation, really, from University resources.

IL: I think for me, the problem I see with student mental health here at Princeton is more so to do with the accessibility. Now of course, resources can always be improved, and they’re not up to par here at Princeton. But in terms of accessibility, when you consider the academic environment that students are in, the rigor, the pace of the semester, there’s not really a lot of time or opportunity to be able to use these mental health resources in the first place without any issues, especially if they have to do with academic, becoming more so of a problem. 

So if your mental health issues stem from maybe falling behind in courses or not doing well in a specific class, and you have to take the time in order to use the mental health resources that we currently have, a lot of students, I think, feel that it would only exacerbate the problem, since they would rather spend that time trying to catch up or whatever it is.

IM: I completely agree with both of you. Princeton offers so many resources with regards to mental health and just navigating the place with RCAs and your peer academic advisers and whatnot. And even as an athlete, you’re navigating that space, having to manage the time that you have to spend on the field and whatnot. And all of that compounds into being something that can be really stressful and challenging. And I think there is this difficulty for the university to really reach the individual. 

LD: If I may, just very quickly, it feels like maybe a bit of a disconnect. We’ve got all these resources. Getting students to use them, and maybe getting everyone that students are interacting with from faculty to everyone to kind of agree on making this a priority? Does that kind of feel like what you guys are saying?

IL: Yeah, and I’d even go back to the freshman experiences that you were talking about. And this is not even talking about mental health. This is just talking about resources on campus in general. You have freshmen presented with all of these different offices, all these different kinds of advisers to help them on their way. And there are so many different kinds of considerations that students have to take into as they come into Princeton, their academics, their professional development, their social life, things like that. And we have resources for every single aspect, and yet presenting all of these resources at once to freshmen, just how do you navigate that? Especially—

IM: It’s overwhelming.

IL: Yeah, it’s just overwhelming. And that’s for things that Princeton students tend to consider more important, like I said, like their career advancement and their academics. What about something like mental health that falls on the wayside? If they’re already having difficulty trying to access the resources that are supposed to help them with things that they consider more important, then what about something that is not as emphasized here on campus as mental health?

CU: Exactly. And if I can add onto that really quickly, taking care of your mental-emotional well-being is not seen as valued on this campus, and if I may venture to say, in our culture, in our society at large. And so there is this trade-off, like Isaac was mentioning, of should I work on this P-set, get this essay done, work on my R3, or should I schedule that long-overdue counselor appointment or make time to go and hang out with my friends in New York this weekend just to take a pause, take a break?

If they decide to do the latter, there is no professor, there is no career recruiter, job recruiter who is going to recognize that work outright, directly, and reward that work versus doing something like the former, again, what Isaac was saying, focus more on your academic or your career, professional success. And I think that’s just a component of how our society is structured, how higher academia is structured. And I am not saying that that’s the way it should be. I think we can reimagine a better, more well space and field to reside and inhabit, but that is the way things are now. And it’s a huge consideration, I think, for students, like we’ve all been talking about, when they’re deciding which resources to use, if any.

IM: Yeah, and actually to jump on that, I think, what I’ve been thinking about a lot with this question is what makes Princeton unique in this, and how is mental health, how does it play out on our college campus as opposed to other schools? And Princeton is just a hub of so many brilliant, intelligent, hardworking individuals, and a lot of students maybe didn’t feel maybe as challenged coming into Princeton from high school or were able to overcome challenges, and that’s a testament to why they’re here. But when you’re here, it’s just an entire new challenge.

And I think for a lot of people, they haven’t had to deal with mental health or mental health issues or just reflection or considering how they’re feeling to the extent that Princeton kind of pushes us to. And so that in and of itself, it can make it hard to recognize when you might be going through something. And I think that’s also what makes mental health a bit of a problem here, in that it’s not really talked about enough that it’s OK to get preliminary help, because you will end up going through things here. You will end up facing obstacles and challenges. It’s OK to seek out a resource ahead of time before it becomes a problem.

LD: Now that gets right into what and kind of already begins to answer what my next question was going to be, because you’re kind of talking about culture. You’re talking about Princeton as an institution, as a place. What I wanted to ask was what do you think is the root cause, or what are the causes of the mental health challenges that you see students facing here, if we can look at it as a collective? Everyone’s an individual, everyone’s bringing their own things to the table, but if there is a public health sort of a group set of issues, what is it? What do you guys see?

IL: I think it’s just a disconnect between the administration and the students over what the administration believes constitutes mental health and what are the factors that are needed to be considered in mental health. I think the administration just gets it wrong. They believe that what they do and what they say so far has been addressing mental health, but to me it’s just not the case. And I think part of that goes into the administration’s, I wouldn’t necessarily say job, but this idea that they have to balance mental health with rigor, as if those two exist in opposition to each other.

And because Princeton has been set up as this high-thinking, rigorous institution, in this conceptualized battle between rigor and mental health, Princeton just sees it as rigor needs to be the thing that we focus on here and the thing that needs to take precedence over mental health, when in reality, I don’t think that the two ideas are in opposition to each other at all. I mean, when you have a student population that has a better wellness, whose mental health is better, you’re going to have a better-performing student population. So that’s at least how I see it.

CU: I agree to the extent that part of the administration’s role is to support students as academic pupils, as people, as well. I think the people-focus support is in development, because institutions like these, I think, are first and foremost, again, academic, trying to create scholars and professionals, leaders in this world.

I think we as students, we have a personal responsibility to recognize what works and what doesn’t for our own well-being. And what I mean by that is, and this might come off as, I don’t think abrasive but perhaps a shock to some people, is that we have to take initiative to find these resources and to use them. And that’s what we’ve been talking about. I’m sure we’ll get more to it, but we aren’t set up in a world where an institution like a university will provide all the answers to make our mental health issues disappear.

I was actually talking with University Student Government president Stephen Daniels (’24) the other day, and he put it beautifully like this, and I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him, but he said that there’s nothing an institution can do to make someone’s genetic predisposition to depression just disappear. For some of us, we are just built in a way that predisposes us to certain mental health issues. And I’m not saying that the administration, again, should just ignore this and should treat every single student the same and not provide adequate mental health resources. But we also just have to recognize and be OK with the fact that there’s honestly nothing that anyone, any external force, can do to make everything perfect and seamless for us.

I think there are many different ways for students to promote and support our own well-being and our collective well-being. Again for example, talking to a therapist or leaning into faith communities or connecting with family or even eating a really delicious bowl of cereal, or soul food, or any of your favorite food.

LD: I love cereal.

CU: In that case, if it’s cereal go you. There so many different factors that come into supporting our mental health, and I don’t think we should just look for these outward band-aid solutions or silver bullets to recognize something that’s a really intimate and internal process that might even arise from our habits like social media scrolling or escapism through Netflix or Hulu or what have you, or even the people we surround ourselves with, honestly.

I think someone’s friend, group and family can have an enormous impact on their self-perception, their mental health that might not often be recognized. For example, if someone feels like they can’t be their authentic self around their group of friends, but decides to remain with them for whatever reason, whether that is clout or status by association or access to certain opportunities, it’s just a matter of recognizing what one values and if the people around them share those same values and are invested in their own growth and development. So lots of ideas there. I would love to hear y’all’s thoughts, but I just again want to emphasize that I think the root cause of mental health, it can be a lot more internal than we like to talk about sometimes.

IM: I think those are great points Chioma, and also Isaac, both of you guys. Trying to tie what we’re all talking about together, it definitely seems as though the theme we’re looking at is that mental health issues here on campus, it’s a systemic issue. It’s within the structure. We have these mental health resources that are supposed to help us when we have a problem, but it’s increasing year after year. Just hearing conversations about people not being happy here on campus. And that has to mean that there is something at the core of our culture here that is causing us to feel this way. And I don’t want to generalize. People are happy on campus and people have good times and people go through difficult times. But I think with mental health, I think I’m not going far to say that mental health issues are on the rise and it’s all around, but here for sure on this campus.

And I think it’s not going to fix it by just adding more resources and maybe adding more psychologists is not going to fix the issue as a whole. I think we have to get at the root cause of what is going on. And I think to add to what you were talking about before, Isaac, about why do we have to have academic rigor and being well kind of be against each other, and why can’t they coexist? 

And I think, as I was saying before as well, people here are successful. People here have accomplished incredible things. And I think in high school we’re very focused on GPA and accolades and achievements and when you get here and GPA is still something that matters, especially in the job market. I’m hearing my friends talk about it all the time. That just creates even more stress and even more just unhappiness when sometimes it feels like you’re competing against the brightest minds to get into great positions.

And I think in that there gets lost this love for learning that in my personal life, I feel like I’ve been wanting more from out of my experience here because I think as a pre-med, a lot of pre-meds I’m sure would hear what I’m saying. GPA is important to get into med school and it’s incredible that we’re able to be at this institution that has such a great name, but at the end of the day, you do have to put in the work. You do have to get the grades, you do have to go to class each day and work hard. But then I think that just becomes, you get in this cycle of just doing the work because you have to rather than doing the work because you love it and you love to learn. And I think a lot of it has to do with the grades and it’s a complicated issue for sure, and there’s how do you judge quality of work and whatnot outside of Princeton. But I think finding a way to return to how do we center the love for learning, I think is really important.

LD: I think that when you’re healthy, you’re strong. When you’re physically healthy and you’re mentally healthy, you are strong. And when you’re strong you can do things. You can do hard things, like be a Princeton student. Does it feel like students understand that? They understand that when you take care of yourself, you’re building your ability to do these things?

IL: No.

CU: Yeah, no.

IL: I think the physical side, yes, just because you get the flu, you’ve got to take care of yourself, right? But I think students here just don’t recognize how much, for one, goes into making sure you’re mentally well, and two, how important that needs to be, if not more important than your physical health. And the two tie themselves to each other. When you’re eating, when you’re sleeping, obviously those are factors that are going to help with your mental health as well. But also just having blocks of time for yourself, making sure you’re able to just wind down a little bit at the end of each day, allowing yourself to treat yourself every once in a while — I think these are just things that students take for granted. It’s just not a necessary part of their lives or maybe that it shouldn’t be a necessary part of their lives so that they can focus more on being a successful Princeton student. 

And as I’ve mentioned before, I do a lot of mentoring specifically for underclassmen and for high schoolers. It’s just a theme I see time and time again. Some of the first messages that I always make sure to give incoming students is make sure you’re eating, make sure you’re sleeping, make sure you have a block of time where you’re able to do whatever you want and you don’t have to feel guilty about any of your work or anything like that. Make sure these are things that you have, because that’s what helps constitute good mental health here on campus.

CU: Right. When it comes to health, I believe that students are by and large in survival mode, like Isaac was saying, it’s the foundational, the basics: eat, sleep, get an hour of exercise in somewhat regularly. But it’s optimizing these dimensions of health. So what is the least amount of sleep I can get so that I’m still functioning, I can still go to class, I can maybe grab a bagel or skip breakfast altogether, and it’s like, go ahead.

IL: Well, I mean, I even have some of the students legitimately, they come to me when I ask them, how much sleep are you getting? They’re like oh, I’m getting like four hours of sleep a night. That’s like—

IM: That’s valorized.

IL: Yeah, that’s good because then I get to have more time to do my P-set or to do the readings that I have to do. And every time I just have to look at them in horror and be like no, that’s not OK. I don’t care if you’re late on your work or to do a P-set, you need to get sleep. That’s just the very first things that you need to do.

CU: Right, and I think even sometimes there’s a point of bonding, of socializing to an extent, maybe a group of first years are in their study room down the hall until 2 a.m., 4 a.m. grinding through a P-set or another assignment. Yeah, I mean we all have.

IM: We all have.

CU: We all have, to some extent, to some extent, we all have, and I think it’s part of the culture, the Princeton if not the college culture. Again, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or that we can’t imagine something different.

IL: But we treat it like a shared trauma, almost. We socialize over how little sleep or how infrequently we go to dinner, things like that.

CU: Yeah. Oh, and the meals, skipping the meals to me, that is just heartbreaking. Yeah. Honestly, because that’s literally the time where you get the nutrients that your body needs. Again, going back to a biochemical level, you cannot function without these building blocks that you get from your nutrition. And I’m just like, oh man, let’s try to do better. And I will too. I’m telling myself this, I need to drink more water, just make sure I try to have a colorful plate at my meals. 

The one other thing I wanted to add is it seems as though oftentimes students are in this mentality of health as a means of survival until we reach a breaking point where our body says, I need to rest, I need sustenance, truly. And this breaking point might be when someone catches the flu or someone has a panic attack or someone sleeps throughout an entire day, all of which I have heard students mention just in this semester. And we normalize reaching this breaking point and then making a slight adjustment and then reverting back to business as usual instead of normalizing continued, integrated well-being and not optimize health.

IM: Well said. Beautifully said.

CU: Thanks.

IM: And I think in my personal experience, I will say in my classes, I’ve had professors that have been really open to just understanding and the fact that we are really busy people and sometimes we do need to take time, to miss a lecture, because you need sleep or you need to catch a meal. And yeah, personal conversations I’ve had with professors, they are really understanding, and I know that’s not the case for every department, every professor on campus, unfortunately, but your physical health is so crucial to your mental health.

And even just speaking from the experience of being an athlete, I have training every single day and I have to give 100% in my training every single day. And that is taxing. Not only is that a major time commitment out of the day where I’m not doing work class-wise, not getting ahead where focusing on the sport I love, which I love, but that is also a huge tax on your physical well-being. After practice, I am not someone who can work after practice. I get way too tired or I am too tired from having fully exerted myself physically, but also mentally. I think I speak for a lot of athletes when I say your mood is very affected with how training went and if you had a not-so-good training, you’re less inclined to want to do anything. Good training, things are better. But the physical aspect and taking care of yourself is just important to every aspect of your day.

LD: Well, before I move on to, and this is kind of getting into the solutions question, but is there anything else that you guys wanted to say about that or anything about how Princeton is supporting students’ mental health?

CU: Like I mentioned, I’m part of the University mental health task force, and we have an outside third party who’s evaluating the state of mental health and our resources on campus currently. And preliminary results have shown that, believe it or not, Princeton is actually doing much better than a lot of universities and colleges across the nation, which just goes to show how widespread this issue of not only the mental health crisis, but the response to mental health crisis is, or the lack of response.

And in terms of practical physical resources and responses from the University in regards to mental health, there has been an increase in the number of available counselors in our counseling and psychological services, diversity of counselors as well, that some of them offer drop-in appointments, virtually and in-person. We this year started a contract with a virtual mental health platform where students 24/7 can schedule an appointment with a provider somewhere across the country and a therapist specifically and get the help that they need. There’s also been expansions to our CPS Cares line, which is a 24/7 line, I believe, where a student can talk to a University clinician, mental health clinician, and there are efforts to eliminate copays for therapy appointments and provide transportation to off campus therapists.

And just off the top of my head, there is a mental health navigator on the Tiger Safe app. We haven’t quite promoted that yet, but (director of Counseling and Psychological Services) Dr. Calvin Chin worked on it and launched it a couple of weeks ago, which essentially is in this quiz-like format where people can toggle or click through if they need an immediate mental health resource, do they want a University-sponsored or peer led resource and these different filters until they get to a list of organizations or programs that can cater to their particular need.

And then the last thing I want to mention is the (inaudible) campus website that the Office of Student Life is working on, which is an effort to consolidate the different, not just mental health resources, but student organizations and campus life-affiliated programs for easier access by students including undergrad and graduate students. 

So there are I think a plethora of resources at the University offers. Again, do students know about them? Do students use them? Do students have the time to use them? That is another issue. And are there more programs that the University could offer? Sure. But there are quite a few out there currently.

LD: Now when you put it like that, that sounds like a lot.

CU: It does.

LD: That really sounds like, but this isn’t what you hear when you hear students talking about mental health. I mean, what they’re talking about is how they’re overwhelmed, how they don’t know what to do, keep having tragedies. So where’s the disconnect? Anybody know?

IL: I think for me it’s one of the questions that you asked, do they have the time to use them? Right. Because especially at Princeton, I mean they already are taking time out of their day to have less sleep, to eat less, to not have any fun on the weekends because they have to keep working. I mean, if they’re already so swamped and so stressed and so having to focus on their academics, what time? What Princeton student would see it as worth it to take the time out of their day to access these mental health resources?

IM: Right. The way I’m thinking of it’s like a misguided sense of priorities in that work, here, it has to come first. Is what it feels like. Your commitments and your — the course that you’ve selected. Those have to come first and they have to come first because you got to show up and you got to get the grades. And that’s unfortunate.

IL: Well, just to clarify, for any student listening that’s not healthy, don’t do that. Your mental health should always come first over everything. Even your academics. Hopefully you listen to that.

And going back to something that you said earlier about how we have an internal responsibility to make sure that we’re doing the things necessary to secure our mental health. Yes, that’s completely true. We should be making our own efforts to make sure that our mental health is up to par, that it’s something that we have a priority over in our lives. It’s just so hard to do so at Princeton. It really is. And I’m about to call out a specific class, but I love all the teachers in EEB 211. I appreciate all of you, but just as an example, I had a lab report that was due over the Thanksgiving break. That’s my break. I’m not supposed to have any work during that time. I should be able to go home, be with my family, have my Thanksgiving meal, and instead I’m out here worrying about spider locomotion is what it was. Why is that something that was OK with a class? And that’s just one example of just how pervasive academics can become in Princeton students’ lives, just how integrated we make it into our lives. We plan everything around it. And in that sense, where is the room for mental health? Where’s the room to access mental health resources?

IM: And to that point too, that’s so interesting because thinking about my classes, I actually had a paper due over break as well, the Friday after Thanksgiving. I have dinner with my family, back to work.

IL: The day after Thanksgiving.

IM: And it’s difficult too though, because I think as I mentioned before, I feel like I have had great conversations with professors about well-being, and they know that we have a lot of work on a day-to-day. And I think taking the work over break example, talking with one of my preceptors, their decision to assign something over break was in their eyes a way of relieving the week before break where you’re at school and teachers tend to pile a ton of work on you before you leave for break. That was a way for them to give you more time and more space to focus on the project. And I think there are people here that are concerned about the mental health issues that students are facing here. And that goes back to this whole conversation of it being, what is the root cause of all of this? What are the infrastructures that are causing these issues? 

And I think because we are just such high achievers, I think we also forget that it’s OK to ask for help. And I think people often feel as though they’re going through things alone and there’s so many resources that are given to us and it’s like, all right, so it’s on me to have to navigate them. It’s on me to have to find the right thing if I need help. But that takes a lot of time and I think that adds into why am I wasting my time trying to do this when I have a paper due the next day or a P-set due. I think that it’s just priorities are sometimes the cause of, or I don’t want to say misguided because we have to do the work, we have to work hard, but sometimes we just neglect our well-being when that is core to functioning. And I think asking for help is something that we can get better at as a community.

LD: I think asking for help is a really important life skill, which if you don’t learn it now, you will learn it in your jobs because you’ve got to be able to do that. I’m starting to get David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” starting to run through my head. Where does the pressure come from? You’re just talking about it being self-driven. Do we have a population of very driven people? We do. We do. But where else does it come from? Is this families? Is it knowing you’re at Princeton? Is it faculty? Is it all directions? Because it does, it feels like you guys are in these individual pressure cookers.

IL: Oh, I think that’s a highly individualized question. I mean there are some general pressures just to do well, to make sure you can secure a good future for yourself to make sure that you’re able to utilize opportunities and create more opportunities after you’re gone from here. I think that’s just a universal thing that students experience. But then of course there’s just other things that you have to consider. I mean, does your culture impact what kind of pressures you feel, right? Do you have a family back at home that you want to do well for? I know that’s a common pressure for kids whose parents were immigrants. It’s something that I feel. My parents were immigrants. They made efforts here in America once they came to make sure that I had a good life for myself and now I have an opportunity here, I better use it well.

Things like that. There’s just a, I want to make sure I have the correct term here, an interconnectivity, intersectionality. There we go. Between what it means to be a Princeton student and other factors in your life, your culture, your race, your heritage, just your socioeconomic status back at home. All of these things I think come together to help form just this high pressure on a student, especially when you realize that at an institution like Princeton, this is really pretty much the best you’re ever going to be, right? Not ever going to be, yeah. Not ever going to be like this point. (laughter)

This is a really good starting opportunity for you here. And if you use it well then it could lead to other really good opportunities down in the future. And if you use it badly, then what’s going to happen, right? And when you take that and all the other factors that a student has experienced throughout their life, then yeah, I think that’s a recipe for a lot of pressure on a student.

CU: Right. For lack of a better word. I feel like the majority of the pressure is self-imposed, but influenced by all the factors that Isaac just mentioned, culture, precedent, a lot of us come from being the top of our class, going to really prestigious high schools or if not prestigious high schools where we took all AP classes, advanced classes, we were the golden student.

IM: The extracurriculars.

CU: Yes, incredibly involved. And then coming to this space where all of a sudden you’re a small fish in a big pond and you’re surrounded by again, like you said earlier, you said brilliant minds. And it’s a lot to live up to. And again, if you have a family back home, friends back home, community back home, I know some students come here and literally they were in the newspaper, their local newspaper, when they got into Princeton University. And that is a ton of pressure to put on a young person, or any individual really.

And I want to particularly bring to the front our students from lower income backgrounds and international students too. People who are away from cultures, from communities, from their family, anything that is even remotely familiar, oftentimes to them. Coming to this space in pursuit of a better opportunity and having to do so again, isolated largely from their support systems that got them through high school or earlier. And that is incredibly, incredibly hard. And I think it still adds to the pressure of performing well because you made this huge sacrifice to go to a foreign country, limited resources, so many people have invested so much to get you here and you just can’t fail.

Whether or not there are sufficient resources available to protect, promote your health and well-being, that does not matter. You were put in this spot by the grace of God or whoever you believe in, if you believe in anyone, and you have to succeed. That is an incredible situation to be in. I admire international students immensely for that reason, and many others, but for that reason in particular, because I don’t know how personally I would be able to do something like that. So yeah, I mean so much to consider again when thinking about where the pressure is coming from. But it’s self-motivated, we’re a lot of type A people. We’re organized, again, we’re clever and we want to do our best.

IL: Just imagine feeling like that and then you start failing or your mental health starts going down, are you really going to be going for your mental health or are you going to be trying to do something that’s going to help you succeed?

LD: Those communities care about you guys more than they care about what you accomplish, and if they knew that you were having problems, they care about that first.

IL: I appreciate that as well. But here’s what I’m going to say. I get that you care about me, but I want to give back. I want to be able to help. I think this is a sentiment that just like international students, lower income students, can recognize, I get that you care about me. I get that you want me to be happy and healthy, but what I want is to give back. I want to be able to succeed so that I can help you. In the face of that sentiment, again even that, I think even more so than anything, it’s almost this idea of my well-being and my mental health doesn’t matter as much as my possible ability to contribute to those back at home or to whatever community I want to help in or whatever.

It’s almost like we put ourselves in this idea that as long as I succeed, it doesn’t matter whether my mental health is horrid or it doesn’t matter if my mental health goes down because I am putting in the effort to succeed so that I can help my communities back at home so I can help the people back at home so that I don’t waste this opportunity to do so. I think that’s an additional aspect of it, I think.

CU: Right, and I think we can get so caught up in this attitude that we forget, and I am definitely guilty of this too sometimes, we forget that we are loved. We do have an enormous, oftentimes strong, resilient, and consistent community, whether physically or just emotionally close to us, who is looking out for us. But I think when we’re in this environment, it is so hard to remember that we are loved for who we are. And that isolation is killer. Metaphorically, it’s really killer. And I wish not only what Issa mentioned earlier, that we renewed this love for learning, but I wish we would just renew this love for each other.

IM: This love, period. But yeah, Isaac, going back to your point about the pressure that students face sometimes when they’re having to deal with these crazy, crazy priorities, choices that they have to make at such a young age, of ‘I have to do well because I have to give back.’ That’s pressure. That’s just a lot of pressure on an 18, 19, 20-year-old, 21-year-old. And that is just the fact of the matter of our society. And because we are put in this position that so few have the opportunity that we feel like we have to make the most of it. And I just wanted to echo that. I wanted to echo that.

IL: And then all of that, where does the mental health go?

IM: Where does it go?

LD: What do you guys think needs to happen to make this a mentally healthier place with mentally healthier people? What do you guys think needs to happen?

IL: That’s a doozy of a question. Can someone else please answer.

LD: Fix it. Go ahead and fix it for us. Isaac, what do you think?

IL: Oh boy. No, that’s a tough question. I have a couple of ideas. I mean, for one, please don’t make it so that we have to use our breaks to do work. Please. I mean, if you’re behind on just your general studies and you have to use the break to catch up, I get that. But professors, please, please, I know I think from what Issa said earlier about how professors, they try to recognize our mental health and our stability by assigning work during the break, so we don’t have to do it right before or right after, and it’s just like a bunch. I don’t think that’s a good idea. My break should be a time for me to rejuvenate, to rest, to not have to think about school. Please don’t assign work on break.

I don’t remember how many years ago, definitely before we were here, Chioma, the University shortened the academic semester. I think it was what, 16, 14 weeks to 12? This might’ve been a while ago, but that was also a bad decision. I think you just got to revert, allow us to have more time. I’m OK with doing finals over—

CU: I am not. (laughter)

IL: Wait, let me take that back. Let me take that back. Let me step it back a little bit earlier. Not later. I’m OK with cutting a little bit of the summer break. I just think that the academic, to me, it always comes down to the academic pace and the rigor. We just have to go so fast and we have to do so much that it doesn’t give us much of a time for breaks in between. And it’s those breaks that are so essential to allowing us to rest, to rejuvenate, to take on the next portion of work. It’s just too fast. And I mean, if I would boil it down to one statement, it’s got to go a little slower. It’s just you got to spread it out a little. It’s got to go a little slower. 

IM: That’s exactly where my head was at in terms of the pace of how this place moves. Reflecting on my Princeton experience, I’ve realized that what I felt I’ve been missing a lot of is that love for just pure learning. And I do my readings, I enjoy my classes and I enjoy the precept conversations. And when I’m doing the readings, I enjoy them. But because of the time constraints that I have on a day-to-day, on a week-to-week and the pace at which we’re just flying through material, it doesn’t feel as though I’m grasping as much as I would want to.

And I think, yeah, I don’t know what solutions necessarily to offer, specifics, but I don’t know, maybe one less class being the standard of three and you can just focus on three classes or I don’t know, just assigning less work and especially for humanities, social science-type classes, assigning less reading so you can really just focus on what’s being said. The core of less that you can get more out of, I think can just remove so much weight off of people’s shoulders to do a lot.

For me, this whole question of how do we solve mental health here on this campus, college campuses in general, it’s getting back to learning being the core and not “doing well” per se. Let me rephrase that. Not getting the grades or getting the numbers. It has to be about that love for learning,

CU: Right. I completely agree. And to redeem my department a little bit, EEB.

IL: I love the EEB department.

CU: Me too. I want to offer one of my current professors, Professor Andrea Graham, as an example, she teaches this class on immune systems, as again an example of what faculty can do to better promote student mental health. And she has taken a different approach to assessing learning. Again, going back to that love of learning. And we have two creative, we don’t have too many assignments, but two of our major assignments are more like creative writing projects about describing parasites’ interaction with a host. So we did, this year we had to develop our own parasite to attack a beaver, and then we switched the assignment around for our next paper. And it’s like think a host, we’re the host beaver and we have to write how we’re going to counter-attack that parasite. And it is a class based on science, on the functioning of the immune system, but it’s from a different angle and invites us to be creative and imaginative besides just reproduce knowledge or a scientific paper or a lab report in a typical way. And it’s really refreshing. It’s really refreshing. And I will say we did not have any assignments over the break, which was a relief.

IL: Appreciate, appreciate.

CU: And other examples that professors have done are drop your lowest homework grade or do a group final project instead of a final exam or for organic chemistry, they will take your two best exams during the academic semester and your final exam if you do well on that. And that will determine your exam grade, or any basically different combinations that will result in your final exam grade for the course being the best it can possibly be based off your performance on the exams throughout the semester. 

So there are concrete strategies that faculty in particular can do to ease the burden on student mental health in regards to particularly the grades because I think that’s often at the core of students’ concerns. And even just broader from an academic perspective, because we’ve talked a lot about academics and I think that’s because academics is part of the root cause of why students are struggling mentally. So for professors, talking to their peers and gathering as a department to brainstorm different ways that are still upholding that rigor, but also inviting each of them to consider their students as people as well.

IM: And I think one more thing to add on for the student body, I think just have conversations. When we think of mental health, I think often we get stressed out by the term because it’s a medicalized term and it tends to hold some weight sometimes. And I think if we can work on reducing, removing that stigma of having conversations about mental health with others, I think that’ll only help. And it doesn’t have to be, how’s your mental health, which is a great question to ask. I’m all for that, but how are you? And really asking “how are you,” I think is a great way to stimulate conversation about different topics regarding mental health and sharing self-care remedies. I like journaling, I like meditating, those are things that I feel like really help me get through tough periods. And I think just being OK with having more conversations about that rather than the amount of work you have to do on any given day, I think can just help improve the student body culture with regards to these issues.

LD: Is there anything else that you guys want to say or address before we wrap this up?

IL: Well, I always give this message, whenever we’re talking about mental health especially to Princeton students: Your mental health matters and it has to matter more than your academics. It really just has to be that important. It’s not worth getting an A if it means you don’t want to be alive the next day.

CU: I would say that there are so many ways to be successful here at Princeton and in the world at large. And going back to our earlier conversation, there is no way you can reach whatever imagining definition you have of success without taking care of yourself, which I acknowledge is easier said than done. But I feel like if you find yourself breaking down or on the verge of breaking down in pursuit of an endeavor that you believe will make you successful, then I invite you to reevaluate that measure of success, and reevaluate what — your journey to that measure of success, to that priority. Getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth, calling your mom, eating a really good meal. Those can all be part of your success journey, wellness, and your wellness journey. They’re not mutually exclusive. So to whoever is listening to this student or not, definitely take a moment to reevaluate how you define success.

IM: And thank you, Chioma. Thank you, Isaac. Honestly, I just want to say thank you for having me in this space with you guys. It’s been so fun. And Liz, of course. But this is also a podcast for alumni, right? So I was thinking a little bit about what role can alumni play in this conversation. I was blessed with an amazing opportunity to meet a ton of Black alumni in the D.C. area over the summer and connect with them and hear about their experiences. And I think there is so much value in hearing from your experiences of having gone through this place as well, especially being a person of color and seeing people that look like me come out of this place and do so well in myriad ways. 

And I think just hearing your stories and when you guys reach out to us, I think it helps. I think it really helps because we all have gone through this place, which is a difficult place, and I think it adds to that culture of, you will get through it if we share these experiences and support each other through it. So I would just stress that with alumni to have conversations with students. 

LD: All right. Well, Issa, Chioma, Isaac, thank you so much.

IL: Thank you very much for having us.

CU: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

IM: This was awesome.

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.