Culture of high achievement fosters anxiety, depression
Opinion Column: The Champagne Socialist
As you know, finals and deadlines for an array of projects, applications, theses and so forth are fast approaching. Too fast, I’m certain. So with all of these responsibilities and commitments swirling around us, let me remind all of you: You are not your grades. Your worth as a person can’t be determined by how well you perform on your exams, if your department grants you honors or if you graduate on time. Not everyone will care about your GPA a decade, or a century from now. Hell, they may not even care much about them a year from now, or at least the people that make life worth living won’t. Your major can’t define you either. Anyone can major in English, biology, finance, Norse literature — you name it! And, anyone can get A's, but only you can be you. Out of the billions that have ever lived, the billions that do and the countless scores to come hereafter — here you are. And, I thank God for that.
Now take it from me when I say that life’s extraordinarily difficult, and loving yourself despite your grades, internships and other accomplishments or lack thereof is perhaps one of the single greatest challenges we’re faced with. If loving ourselves was easy, friendships wouldn’t sink into our egos and marriages would last 'till death. If loving ourselves was easy, all sorts of hatreds would disappear, and there’d actually be some justice on this Earth. There’d be no tears, nor sorrow or crying, for the former order things will have passed away.
This is not our condition, however. Love for ourselves, and in turn, love for others continues to remain elusive. We lead our own difficult lives — and besides, finals are here! Who has time for all this feel-good philosophizing when you’ve got to submit that research paper by midnight? Well, with nearly 1 in 6 college students having been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association, perhaps a little more self-reflection on our parts could serve us well in the end.
There’s an epidemic of mental illness on college campuses across the U.S., and resources are stretching thin. Partly, this epidemic is because the stigma of being mentally ill is lessening as people become more educated. Another part is that the experiences and circumstances of U.S. students are changing. In this stagnating and stratifying economy, money’s getting tighter, aid is being cut and it seems you have to be as stellar as possible to overcome all sorts of challenges. In this increasingly unequal society, it’s like you have to be twice as good to get half as much, especially if you’re not white, male, straight, rich, well-connected and so forth. Organizations like the Steve Fund find that rates of mental illness are higher amongst students of color, and that these same students are being underserved by their own schools.
As for me, I’m black, Puerto Rican and gay. I’m definitely "at-risk" for all sorts of things such as depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction, etc. I began seeing therapy as a first-year, saw another one the spring of my junior year and am seeing another professional now. Two therapists have said I have something called "dysthymia." As I understand it, dysthymia’s milder than clinical or manic depression, yet is more chronic, lasting for days, months and years. In my past, it’s taken a toll on me being able to get along with my family, it’s given me trouble forming friendships as a teenager and to this day can sap away at my academic efforts. It really sucks when you’re trying to pass an exam or finish a paper when a constant “you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you can’t do this and you don’t deserve to be here or loved or held or "worth it’ or successful” is howling through your mind. For some reason, I attach a lot of importance and much of my own self-worth to grades, honors and such. Yet when it comes to actually making the effort and getting the A's, I oftentimes fall by the wayside and come up short. I get distracted, and depressed. I lose hope, concentration and I constantly compare myself to others. It’s a vicious circle, and I know far too many have similar demons.
All this is not to say that grades aren’t important and that getting that coveted internship or finishing that thesis aren’t worthwhile endeavors, but those things have to matter if they matter to you and only you. If they do matter, then don’t let them consume you entirely. You’re here to learn and to grow, and getting the most stellar grades or honors may not accurately reflect that strength of character. But having friends does, giving to others does — having fulfilling relationships with other people does too. The difference between an A and a B will never mean who you are as a person or destroy your chance at a future, with all your mysterious and shifting complexities.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history with a minor in political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.