The Pensieve: Harry Potter and the Syndrome of Stanford Ducks

Jan. 6, 2010, 3:28 a.m.

Numbing the pain for a while will only make it worse when you finally feel it.”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 695

As we greet Winter Quarter after three weeks of eggnog-sloshing, snow-related shenanigans and other holiday festivities, it is likely that most of us have boxed up all of our less-than-pleasant Fall Quarter memories and sent them to the Azkaban. Nobody wants to remember that week that we thought would never end, the sour note that that one class ended on, or the mini panic attack we had back in Week Six. While it makes sense to package these unseemly items away and to move ahead with the fresh start that is the new quarter, Harry’s own dealings with the struggles in his life suggest an interesting approach to these issues.

After getting thrown in some Triwizard Tournament deal, scraping through three tasks, watching Voldemort return to power and kill Robert Pattinson–oh wait, Cedric Diggory–right in front of him, one could only imagine how physically and emotionally exhausted Harry was. With both Harry’s mind and body aching for dreamless sleep and an escape from inquiring minds, the last thing he wanted to confront was Dumbledore telling him to engage with his pain. Although Harry’s instincts screamed for him to flee from the horror of the present, Dumbledore wisely recognized that there is immense power and healing in openly acknowledging and sharing agonizing feelings.

Like Harry, we can all recall a time where sharing the truth about our emotional state was supremely difficult. Taking a Portkey back to Freshman Year, after the NSO-fueled dream of consistently happy students dies with Autumn Quarter finals, the administration auto-corrects with Mid-Year Convocation’s warnings of impending nervous breakdowns. Suddenly, “Stanford Duck Syndrome” (SDS) goes into full effect. Any signs of actual problems or stress must be kept hidden in the cupboard underneath the stairs, easily ignored as busy schedules, piles of work and friendships demand our attention.

Herein is where the problem lies. We may readily admit that mental health is an issue that affects us all, but it is much harder to realize, as Dumbledore does, that it is an issue that demands action from us all. Because we are constantly made aware of the resources available to those who may need emotional support, we tell ourselves people will get help if they need it or make false assumptions about the well being of others just because they do not outwardly display signs of distress. By even tacitly buying into the idea of SDS, a façade is created that not only allows a person to be dishonest with themselves about what they are truly experiencing, but that also prevents others from perceiving these struggles and taking them seriously.

Looking back at Dumbledore’s interactions with Harry, it is clear that he was careful not to let Harry make excuses or avoid confronting the issue at hand. As Dumbledore so astutely points out, by ignoring the problem at that moment, Harry would have only been allowing it to eat away at him and manifest itself in a much more damaging fashion later. On our campus, busyness and quick reassurances from our peers that they’re “fine” are just two Harry-esque distractions that soothe our consciences and that allow a few emotional struggles to fester and escalate into something more serious. Even though Sirius’ belief that such things can be managed later maybe more appealing and practical to us, it is imperative to acknowledge that we must be persistent and timely in dealing with these problems.

The real Stanford syndrome is the one that allows us to fountain hop at obscene hours of the day, cheer on the “truly incomparable” LSJUMB’s clothing (or lack thereof) and believe in the entrepreneurial way. What “SDS” or any mental health issue does is rob individuals of what a Stanford life should be about. As we are constantly reminded of the stigma of seeking help, it naturally follows that an absence of much-needed encouragement and support makes getting help that much harder. Even Harry, the Chosen One, needed a “soft” cry from Fawkes the phoenix and a hand on the shoulder from Sirius to share his struggles.  Thus, we are all called upon to actively check in on the well being of those around us and to adopt a lifestyle of open-mindedness. Ultimately, we all need a group of peers to support us and resources to help us if we are, in fact, suffering from mental health issues. While it is the University’s responsibility to provide the latter, it is all of our responsibilities to ensure the former.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eggnog or snow either.  From what we hear, Dumbledore is a pretty big fan of lemon drops and tenpin bowling himself.

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