There’s been a good deal of talk about mental illness the past few weeks, largely spurred by Catherine Zeta Jones’ announcement that she is seeking treatment for her Bipolar II syndrome. In the clip at the link, husband Michael Douglas points out that Jones probably would not have revealed her diagnosis had she not feared being “outed” by those in her treatment group. Both the language he used and the pressure she felt are incredibly sad.
Relatedly, Lena Chen has written about her experience with depression during her time at Harvard, musing on to what degree it was due to the school environment. Chen begins by stating that she tends to believe Harvard is responsible “for the emotional malaise experienced by so many of us there.” She continues by explaining that “The consensus among my friends is that Harvard drives normal people crazy and drives crazy people to suicide.”
More convincingly, Chen points out that it is high pressure environment that emphasizes creating “successful” graduates that may have led high rates of depression she witnessed there. Of Harvard, Chen says, “The problem is that ‘success’ is defined by social notions of prestige, reputation, and wealth. And given how difficult it is to obtain those things and how frequently my peers and I were told that we must obtain them, is it any wonder that people feel fucked up for not being able to simply do what seems to come so easily to their classmates?”
Though I’m pleased to see Chen speaking out about depression and how common it is among college students, I’m troubled by her characterization of this as an Ivy League-specific problem, or to a larger extent, a college-specific problem. Depression is extremely common; what’s not is an open and honest discussion about it. It can be spurred by many things, and drastic change is one of them.
I’ve been pretty honest (at least among friends) about the depression I experienced during my freshman year at the UofC. What I ultimately learned from it was though college did nothing to help the situation, I am fairly confident I would have been just as depressed at any other institution, and perhaps even outside of school. As much I consider it overemphasized, college is the beginning of many adult experiences, and this extreme change, when coupled with a new environment, can be incredibly isolating.
Obviously, Chen is speaking only from her experience, as I can only speak from mine, but I do think it’s unhelpful (and perhaps inconsiderate of the commonness of depression) to write about mental illness as if it’s an issue that only her University, or only Ivy League colleges, or even only colleges, need to tackle. In a way, it creates an odd catch-22: is depression for people who just can’t hack it with the big boys, or a burden only the privileged bear? In reality, it’s something we all need learn to think about better, as I’m sure the female lead of Zorro can tell us.