Drug and alcohol abuse. Anxiety. Depression. Suicide.
For the members of Stanford Peace of Mind (SPoM), these are important societal issues, yet not much is said about them on Stanford’s campus.
SPoM co-president Nikita Desai ‘15 said she wants to get the information out about mental illness on campus in order to combat the stigma attached to mental health issues.
“We see stuff on campus about wellness and happiness, but we don’t see stuff about not being well,” Desai said.
“SPoM is advocating for a greater dialogue and discussion about mental health,” she added. “We want to combat the notion that everyone has to be perfect at Stanford. We are trying to open people up to being more vulnerable.”
Desai and Tara Hasan ‘13 are co-presidents of SPoM, which meets every week at the Bridge Peer Counseling Center. Hasan joined during her freshmen year after seeing a SPoM panel in her freshmen dorm, Cedro.
“I grew up in the Middle East, where everything stays in the family and you don’t share your feelings with people outside the family,” Hasan said. “I had trouble adjusting to Stanford. I felt like everyone around me was doing so well, and I wasn’t enjoying myself. I know now that it was the duck syndrome, but at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Desai’s involvement with mental health began when she was in middle school. She got involved with awareness for obsessive-compulsive disorder, especially for kids. Being a part of SPoM, in her opinion, was just continuing that work in her college years.
Getting people involved at Stanford, however, hasn’t been easy.
“Recruitment is most difficult,” Hasan said. “People are interested in being involved, but they don’t stick it out.”
This year, SPoM has increased the number of student panels they put on and held faculty lunches in which professors talk to students about mental health.
“The panels are the core of what we’re trying to do,” Desai added. “Mental well-being is not universal, and hearing stories of other students, in an open, safe space, sometimes sharing with their own dorm, can help de-stigmatize the issues.”
At a SPoM panel on Wednesday night, three students spoke about their experience dealing with mental illness.
Danny McKay ‘14 shared his story of dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.
“When I was 13 or 14, I started using drugs heavily,” he said. “I didn’t participate in high school…I don’t really remember much of that time.”
After graduating from high school, Danny joined the Air Force, where his addiction continued.
“I slowed down because they would do random drug testing, but I could still go to Rite-Aid or wherever and steal stuff to make into drugs or use as a drug,” he said.
Danny tried committing suicide once and served time in jail for a DUI. He received some treatment while in the Air Force, but after leaving, he stopped.
“I grew up in a trashy part of town…like a big playground for thugs,” he said. “I thought I was destined for that kind of life…I never saw myself where I am now. I honestly thought I was going to end up dead in a ditch, and I accepted it. That’s what scared me. That’s what made me want to get sober.”
Grace ‘14, who requested that only her first name be printed, grew up in Tennessee, where she was the perfect child, doing well academically and as a violinist.
“I was used to berating myself and being hard on myself, and it was reinforced because I had success,” Grace said. “It worked in high school, and then I came to Stanford. At the end of my [freshman year] winter quarter, I started questioning myself…I got to my dream school, but what do I actually want to do?”
She describes the physical reactions she experienced due to her stress.
“I started getting worried about things,” she said. “I couldn’t shut it off. I couldn’t stop worrying. I was always tense, always scared…Adrenaline coursing through my body.”
Grace tried to reach out to her parents, but her mom didn’t know what to say and her dad began questioning her abilities.
“He would say, ‘I thought you were strong. What’s wrong with you? You’re bringing this dark cloud to our family. You just need to suck it up.’ But denying it just made the feelings worse,” she said.
Grace pledged Alpha Kappa Psi, Stanford’s business-interest fraternity, in the spring of her freshmen year and broke down under what she thought was psychological hazing.
“I de-pledged and got a lot of flak from my dad,” Grace said. “I felt really terrible, like I failed, like I wasn’t good enough…I was so good in high school, so proud and successful, and all of a sudden it wasn’t working anymore.”
She took the rest of the year off and returned for her sophomore year, but the problems hadn’t gone away.
“Spring break, I start crying again. It freaked me out, like, ‘why is this happening again?'” Grace said. “I just pushed it down, tried to ignore it…I ended up in the Stanford ER and was admitted to the psychiatric ward. I was transferred to an outpatient program back home, where I started making changes.”
With professional guidance, she stopped tying her self-worth to things that were out of her control. When she returned this year as a junior, she felt a lot stronger.
“I believe that self-worth is inherent,” Grace said. “I say nice things to myself now.”
Partially for herself, but also so that others struggling with mental illness do not have to suffer the same silence she did, Grace has told her story at two panels.
“The first was terrifying,” she said. “The second was terrifying too, because it was my own dorm. Each time I say my story, it feels rewarding because I can share this part of my life with other people, multiple people at once…I’m grateful to have that space to do it.”
Analyssa Lopez ‘16 also enjoyed extensive personal success as a child, but first struggled when she realized how academically challenging the International Baccalaureate (IB) program was at her high school.
“It was a huge shock, like jumping into ice-cold water,” Lopez said. “I never had to work to get good grades or to understand the material…I was completely out of my element.”
She started being bullied and withdrew into lonely depression.
“I started not going to school, not wanting to see anyone,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my mom that I cannot stand the idea of going to school or getting out of bed.”
She attempted suicide and ended up in an adolescent behavioral health center. While she still sometimes struggles with the pressure that comes with being a Stanford student, she credits SPoM with helping her adjust.
“Here, I can tell strangers what happened to me, and I think it’s most helpful because it makes me feel like there’s some sort of outlet,” Lopez added. “It makes it easier to admit to myself that [mental health] is something I’m struggling with.”
SPoM aims to eliminate the “duck syndrome” and allow discussion of vulnerability so often swept under the rug by schedules and responsibilities. But according to Desai, it’s the responsibility of students, not the University, to make the change they want to see on mental health stigma.
“Students create the culture on campus,” Desai said. “We can fight the duck syndrome by talking about it…It’s tempting to point the blame at the University, but students silence themselves.”