“Taking care of each other” and mental health

Opinion by Caitie Karasik
Nov. 5, 2014, 9:45 p.m.

Stanford requires its incoming freshmen to complete an AlcoholEdu course and couples this with dorm programming centered around the idea that Stanford students take care of each other. Your friends don’t know their limits? Watch out for them. See dormmates stumbling down Mayfield in danger of never making it home or being stopped by a police car on the row? Get them in bed safe, on their side, with water and a trash can.

We are encouraged here in this community not only to respect and learn from each other, but also to be each other’s eyes and ears when it comes to assuming risks to our health and our safety. But one area neglected in this altruistic other-oriented atmosphere is that of mental health.

The ASSU is working this year to target the “duck syndrome” on campus. This includes policy recommendations (increased funding to The Bridge and CAPS and better coordination between organizations) and student-led initiatives (panels, workshops and a speak-out event scheduled for this year) to erase stigma and create more efficient resources – professional as well as social. But the conversation remains focused too stringently only on how we can take care of ourselves.

Attending to our mental health remains perceived as an egocentric pursuit, contributing to the fiction that mental health is only relevant in the context of disease. Taking a “me” day is not selfish, but rather part and parcel of belonging to a community in which we take care of ourselves, out of many reasons, so that we are capable of taking care of each other. It is vital that we put our own mental health first. But we must also be prepared to deal with others’ mental health as well.

For one thing, it is not just the responsibility of the RAs or PHEs to check in with their residents. You too must take mental health seriously, refusing the idea that it’s not your problem or outside of your control, by using the channels available to you as a student. If you’re not comfortable reaching out yourself, alert your dorm staff or Residence Dean, or ask The Bridge or CAPS for advice on how to be available.

Additionally, Stanford should educate all incoming freshmen, not just residential and program staff, about the warning signals of mental illness and simple interventions. Providing information or some sort of AlcoholEdu-like course would be an easy way to have students begin their Stanford careers already having internalized the notion that mental health is anything but trivial. It would also furnish students with the tools to act with compassion through preventative measures.

Finally, we should encourage each other, both by adopting a better vocabulary and by example. “How are you?” followed by “I’m fine” is perhaps the most pernicious norm in our lexicon besides the ubiquitous filler “like.” This absurd exchange leaves no room for authenticity. Try being honest, as others have suggested, even outside of your immediate circle, and it will be easier to spot and support, thereby normalizing, the full range of experiences and emotions of which the human mind is capable.

In this way, it will become less challenging to know when to ask for a break. Professors know the difference between a flimsy excuse and a legitimate plea given tough circumstances. Residence Deans know when the tears shed on their polyester couches in Lasuen have demanded a bit of leeway on that problem set or essay. Part of taking care of each other means giving someone the permission to admit that he or she isn’t doing okay and that it is, in fact, okay.

You’ve learned to check in with your buddies when they want to drive home from EBF Happy Hour. You’ve learned to guide your girlfriend’s stumbling feet to keep the spikes of her heels from tripping on pavement cracks. It’s time we learn how to check in with regard to mental health – to take care of each other so we don’t let anyone fall through the real cracks.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Caitie is a senior majoring in Sociology with a minor in Political Science. She studies generational differences in gender norms, and is particularly interested in the attitudes and behaviors that characterize Millennials ("Generation Y"). Contact her at [email protected] with comments or questions.

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