How Stanford forgot about its mental health crisis

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 17, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Content warning: suicide

If you were reading the Stanford Daily around this time last year, you might have thought our campus was in a state of emergency regarding students’ mental health. That January, the death of Jalen Paukan sent shock waves through the Native community at Stanford and beyond, leaving behind grief that remains to this day. As the ASSU elections approached in April, mental health took front and center – during a debate hosted by editors-in-chief of the Stanford Daily and the Stanford Review, those running for ASSU Exec unanimously agreed that “mental health [was] the most important issue.” The Daily’s own Editorial Board stated bluntly that “Stanford’s mental health infrastructure can no longer fully meet demand” and that “Stanford must also build a broader culture of self-care.” Articles highlighted the efforts student groups took to support students on campus, the inability of Stanford’s culture to acknowledge and talk about failure, and even compared the crisis of mental health to the Vietnam War.

So where did it all go?

It’s not like this academic year saw our concern for mental health suddenly vanish. The Daily ran an article on stimulants and study drugs; students started a new student group (CS + Mental Health) to connect mental health projects with “the technology-savvy students they need.” And CAPS, the target of so much attention and criticism last year, reported progress in hiring new staff – though much is still left to be desired. But the outrage, the focused attention, the strength with which students across campus prioritized mental health as a campus issue is gone, placated by a handful of institutional reforms moving at the speed of bureaucracy and the occasional acknowledgement that mental health is, in fact, an important concern. The student alarm that followed the traumatic deaths of two of our own last year peaked and crashed, and now, it seems, our campus has moved on.

It frustrates me. Our campus culture feels no different from how it did last year and the year before that; whether we call it duck syndrome or institutional neglect or systemic oppression, things are still the same on campus. Our workloads are too high. Our students are stressed out. Activism takes a toll on already marginalized communities; students struggling with family problems, depression or other mental health difficulties are ignored and isolated from the Stanford community. What progress has been made? A student group, more counselors at CAPS and a smattering of events year-round to promote mental health? How did these changes affect struggling students, or was that assessment criteria even considered at all?

It’s nowhere near enough, Stanford, for us to make cosmetic changes to our institution and sit back in our seats, convinced that we’ve done enough. Last year we were traumatized by the deaths of two students into pushing for more reform, but the reality is that there have been and still are countless students at Stanford making it one day at a time who we often don’t hear. This school that we so often prop up for empowering and educating its students to thrive and succeed in the world can just as easily suppress, neglect and hurt its student population in a number of ways:

ONE: CAPS’s referral process continues to be unwieldy, stressful and traumatic.

TWO: High unit loads mandated by graduation requirements and encouraged by our campus culture force students to choose between academic success, social/community life and physical/mental health.

THREE: Unpaid labor done by activists and advocates to better the experiences of marginalized students on campus – organizing events, infinite meetings with faculty, galvanizing the student body – is exhausting and often goes unrecognized.

FOUR: Microaggressions and everyday instances that remind marginalized students of their marginalization – even in small ways – cause what some scholars have called “death by a thousand (paper) cuts,” and place an addition burden on struggling students.

FIVE: A culture where students know that “mental health” should be acknowledged, yet lack the skills, training and/or resources to support their peers and residents exacerbates the institutional failures of this campus.

By all accounts, Stanford is still in a mental health crisis – it’s just been masked by surface attempts to do better, well-intentioned efforts that nevertheless fail to address larger critiques and shortcomings of our education system and campus culture. It’s on us as students to do what we can with the resources at our disposal: student groups already formed with a mandate to advocate for mental health need to focus their efforts on the root causes of these problems. Activists and event organizers of all types need to realize that students need to be supported, whether or not they come to our events or rallies. And as a campus, we need to one-up a so-called “culture of self-care” and move beyond taking care of ourselves to taking care of each other, as communities, dorms, houses and organizations.

There’s much more to be done, and much of it needs to be done by the administration. But in the interim, we are still in a crisis. As students, we need to remember how important it is to take care of each other, and how much power we have in doing so.


Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected].

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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