Op-Ed: On mental health at Stanford

Aug. 16, 2012, 1:03 a.m.

I recently learned of the tragic death of Samantha Wopat ‘14. Shocked by the death of a current student, I turned to Google and The Stanford Daily to learn more about Samantha. I was devastated to find out that she died one week after attempting suicide. I was also disheartened to discover that many in the Stanford community feel that the University does not effectively communicate about or address mental illness on campus.

During my senior year at Stanford (2003-04), I was diagnosed with depression. I struggled to stay interested in anything but sleeping and spent hours crying without knowing why. Added to the sense of hopelessness were feelings of shame and embarrassment — how could I possibly feel sad on the Farm? Everyone else around me (I thought) was accomplished and happy, reveling in the California sunshine and the dynamic academic environment. What was wrong with me?

In April of that year, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily about an insensitive ad the paper ran that referenced mental illness. Writing the letter was cathartic and empowering, but I was nervous about what the reaction would be from people I knew. However, I only remember one person even mentioning the letter to me, looking incredibly embarrassed as he did so.

I’m sad to learn that eight years later, Stanford is still struggling to get this right.

Stanford is an amazing place. I would not trade my four years there for anything. But entering freshmen, all high achievers in some way, can find it hard to adjust when they arrive on campus and discover that at Stanford, they are ordinary. Some might read this and think I am a snob, or somehow ungrateful, or completely lacking in perspective. I thought all of those things about myself as I struggled to rediscover my sense of self-worth in a university community where I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most accomplished people on the planet. I knew I was so lucky to be at Stanford. I knew I was surrounded by amazing people. I knew I should be happy. And that kind of pressure contributed significantly to my depression.

Everyone has heard the cliché about Stanford students and the duck syndrome. I’ve heard countless students and alumni (myself included) describe it with pride. But it perpetuates the expectation that if you aren’t happy, you are supposed to figure out how to fake it. Keep up the image of the brilliant but relaxed Stanford student. The tragedy of Samantha Wopat’s death demonstrates how truly damaging this expectation can be. Struggling — to be happy, to fit in, to find your niche, to discover your passion — is not failure and should not be something students feel pressured to hide.

I’ll close the same way I closed my letter eight years ago: if you are reading this and are struggling with depression, please get help. I promise — things really can and will get better.

Sarah Allen Cassanego ‘04

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