Barely staying afloat: The pervasive culture of duck syndrome at Stanford

By Oriana Riley

(Graphic: MICHELLE FU/The Stanford Daily)

May 28, 2023, 11:16 a.m.

“Don’t be a duck!” reads the headline of a student affairs website page. If you’re far removed from the Stanford bubble, this instruction might seem bizarre. But at Stanford, it’s advice you know all too well.

Duck syndrome, the website reads, is the idea that “students are struggling to survive the pressures of a competitive environment,” paddling their tails off,  “while presenting the image of a relaxed student,” floating peacefully on the water. 

Although the term appears to have originated on the Farm, the experience is not entirely unique to Stanford. It’s something college students across the country fall victim to, due to the common stressors of balancing academics, extracurriculars and social life. 

As a live-in peer counselor at the Bridge Counseling Center, Lily Liu ’21 M.S. ’23 spends her days helping people that struggle with these stressors. The Bridge is a 24/7 peer counseling center, available for students to explore feelings, get help sorting out issues or just have someone to talk to. 

Liu defines duck syndrome as people “pretending that [they] are going through Stanford effortlessly while actually struggling.” 

She told The Daily that, depending on the communities students opt into, there’s a varied risk of falling victim to duck syndrome, based on her observations. But she doesn’t deny that Stanford’s culture is, at least partially, at fault. 

Liu believes it’s “easy to overlook” struggles and different life experiences at Stanford, because of the school’s “emphasis on achievement.” With a six-figure average post-college salary and a legacy of CEOs and world leaders, Stanford students shoot for the moon, but might not accept simply landing among the stars. 

Duck syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis, but the feelings of worry, comparison and self-deprecation can root themselves in more serious illnesses like generalized anxiety, social anxiety and clinical depression. Generally, when students struggle with mental health, the advice is cookie-cutter: see a professional. 

But mental health care at Stanford has received notoriously mixed reviews.

In The Daily’s mental health issue last year, one anonymous sophomore said they spent over 45 minutes on hold with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS.) One law student told The Daily that the entire law school (nearly 600 students) shares one counselor. A frosh almost defined the experience of duck syndrome verbatim: 

“It’s so easy to struggle in silence here,” they wrote.

In an email response to The Daily, University spokesman Stett Holbrook acknowledged the mental health difficulties students face on-campus. 

“Like many universities nationwide, Stanford is experiencing increasing demand for mental health services. Student well-being is a critical priority for the university and an important indicator of student success. We support student mental health needs with robust resources and services,” Holbrook wrote.

University leadership has also previously acknowledged the growing demand for mental health care at Stanford. In response to these criticisms of Stanford’s mental health care last year, Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole said that the University is working “to meet the evolving needs of students around mental health and mental well being” and is frequently hearing feedback from students and those who work with them. 

Stanford’s high-pressure academic environment, in conjunction with its less-than-ideal mental health services, all in the midst of a national mental health crisis could become a recipe for disaster. 

But to think about mental health only in the wake of tragedy or institutional failure is to ignore the day-to-day reality of the problem, according to some.

In 2018, former Daily opinions writer Tiger Sun ’21 acknowledged this overwhelming, yet seemingly normalized pressure in a piece entitled ‘Duck syndrome and a culture of misery,’ where he blamed Stanford’s duck syndrome epidemic on the school’s workaholic culture.

At Stanford, he believes students equate feeling burnt out to feeling successful. They feel guilty about resting. To be overwhelmed feels like inadequacy: after all, you always know somebody is doing more than you and appears (on the surface) to be handling it better. 

But the stress, the anguish, the sleep-deprivation aren’t meant to be loathed. On the contrary, the ‘grind’ is meant to be enjoyed, never taken for granted. This expectation is exacerbated by the environment, according to Sun, who deemed Stanford the “palm-tree paradise,” perpetually “bathed in sunshine.”

His takeaway? Students need to “show that it’s okay to be sad.” Health, he argues, should be students’ number one priority. 

So the idea of duck syndrome isn’t new – far from it.

But students haven’t stopped talking about it. 

Ishaan Singh ’24 and Allen Naliath ’25 defined duck syndrome similarly. 

Singh wrote that duck syndrome is the “feeling that everyone is doing really well except for you and the feeling that everyone around you is in total control but that everything is falling apart for you.”

 To Naliath, duck syndrome is the perception that, for everyone else, “life seems to be going super easy” when “you feel like you’re having a really tough time relative to them. But deep down, under the surface, everyone’s working really hard to keep themselves afloat.”

What’s off-putting about duck syndrome is its inescapability. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed or unlabeled. From YouTube Q&A’s to slightly terrifying cartoons, people understand the concept. And yet recognizing that, in theory, duck syndrome is real seems to rarely translate into being able to recognize that you and the people around you are ducks. 

“I don’t think there’s so much of an issue of dishonesty,” said Nalaith, “If anything, people are open about the amount of work they’re doing.” But are they open about how much it stresses them out?

While academic struggles can be perceived as “relatable,” Nailath has found that conversations about struggling to fit in or feeling like you’re not having as much fun as everyone else just don’t happen.  These feelings, he believes, are exacerbated by social media.

Online, he believes, students want to present “the best version of yourself and the best life that you think you’re living.” 

“Those more emotional or mental struggles are talked about less than academic struggles,” he said. 

But despite social media’s romanticization of the college experience and the cultural pressure to have the ‘best four years of your life’ in college, Liu said that realistically, “your college years are probably one of the most stressful, moody, confused, complex times in your life.” 

Also, according to Naliath, Stanford students are just plain impressive. 

“[At Stanford], you have such a high concentration of individuals that are super talented and really good in certain areas,” he said. This manifests in a phenomenon where students “notice the people doing the best or are having the easiest time” and don’t notice “the people who are struggling or falling behind.” 

He compared it to going to the gym, where eyes are trained on the person lifting the most or running the fastest, where the casual gym-goer simply fades into the background. Perception of how easy things are supposed to be and how good we’re meant to be at something has, he says, been “biased.” 

“You can’t help but to compare yourself to them,” he said.

Singh echoes the fault of comparison, “seeing other people doing a lot has the effect of making others feel like they need to do more with their time and they aren’t doing enough.” 

To Singh, there’s also the element of pressure to be taking advantage of every possibility at Stanford. “Stanford emphasizes trying new things and doing as much as you can,” he said. But he doesn’t think that’s always a good thing.

Sometimes, he believes, it comes at the “expense of self care.” Because there’s so much to do, people feel like they’re never doing enough, when in reality “they are doing much more than they need to or should be doing.” 

He fears that “the situation will only get worse and worse as people try to do more and more courses and be involved in more and more clubs.” 

Despite these fears, Singh doesn’t necessarily think that addressing duck syndrome is an impossible task. 

Singh believes that getting to know people and having deeper conversations about mental health can help students “realize that everyone is going through the same struggles… even though it seems like everyone is in total control.” 

Liu acknowledges the “different comfort levels” in opening up about struggles at Stanford, attributing it to the fear of judgment or not being understood.

To combat that, she hopes to see older students in mentor roles — like Resident Assistants — speaking openly about their mental health struggles and the mental health services available at Stanford.

And, sometimes, she says that means opening up to those services’ shortcomings.

Liu said that her experience approaching Stanford’s mental health care as an Asian-American woman has been less-than-ideal. She struggles to find therapists with what she calls “cultural competency,” or people who understand what it means to be Asian-American or come from a similar family dynamic. 

According to Holbrook, “many students hope to meet with a therapist who has experience working with or who shares the student’s identity in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, etc.” 

To meet this demand, [Stanford’s] providers undergo continuous learning on providing culturally attuned care,” Holbrook wrote. “[Stanford has] a diverse group of therapists on staff, and [is] trying our best to recruit more, in competition with many colleges, universities, and healthcare providers nationwide.”

Despite the challenges they faced, all three students interviewed found pockets of Stanford where they feel comfortable being vulnerable.  

Singh’s place is simple, and, for those that are lucky, perhaps the most relatable:

“With my friends.” 

Nalaith finds he’s able to find that sort of vulnerability within his dorm community in Meier Hall and when he’s with his Bhangra team. 

“If you have people to talk to about [your struggles], that can really help,” he said. “Honesty and openness, in general, help with the problem.”

Liu found that pocket of acceptance within her a cappella group her freshman year. 

“I think it takes another person to be vulnerable first,” she said.

Oriana Riley ’25 is a News Managing Editor at The Daily. Every once in a while, she drops an iconic Campus Life article. Outside of The Daily, Oriana enjoys running a lot of miles and eating a lot of food. Contact Oriana at news ‘at’

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