Does Wash U have a mental health problem?

‘With varying social ties and a highly strenuous academic life, this leaves many college students needing extra support to make it through’

As a senior at Wash U, I’ve been here long enough to see some of the best and the worst that this university has to offer. As young adults struggling to figure out where to place ourselves in the world, we face some of the most challenging questions that just about everyone must grapple with at some point in their lives. These questions may lead us down the path to self-actualization and lifelong joy — but they may also leave us confused and very lost. The early twenties are a time of self-doubt and self-discovery. Coupled with varying social ties and a highly strenuous academic life, this leaves many college students needing extra support to make it through.

I’ve seen too many friends buckle under the pressures in their lives. It’s left me wondering why this happens. Is Wash U itself a toxic environment, or are its mental health resources simply not adequate to meet the needs of the student body?

I decided to ask my fellow students what they thought: Does Wash U have a mental health problem?

Kita, Biology, pre-med, senior

Yes, absolutely, and I don’t think that it’s a problem exclusive to Wash U. I think that’s an important distinction to make, because it’s easy to point at Wash U and say that there’s a problem without looking at other colleges or universities. The good thing is that we have a lot of different student groups oriented around mental health on campus, like Uncle Joe’s and SARAH, who obviously get these kinds of problems first hand.

And I’m an RA, so I act as a resource for other students, and point them in the direction of other resources. Because people come to me, I see mental health problems a lot more than other people might see. Working with my residents, my eyes have been opened to how common these issues actually are, how often people go through them, and how uncommon people think they are. People think it’s so rare — that they’re unique if they have a problem. It’s crucial that we actually start talking a lot more about what we’re going through.

Jordan, undecided, freshman

I think the mental health climate here is pretty poor, and there’s a lot that could be done to improve it. Student Health Services [SHS] are very under-resourced and understaffed. The counselors available to students tend to get very backed up, and you have to book appointments weeks and months in advance. It’s almost as though, if you have a mental health problem, you have to plan out your breakdowns or your depressions ahead of time.

Hunter, Systems Engineering and Music, junior

I work as an RA, so we’re trained in supporting residents — but ultimately, our role is to provide the initial contact point and refer them to health services. The problem I’ve seen with student health counseling is that, unless it is crisis counseling — that is, for example, someone has locked themselves in their room, isn’t eating, and is avoiding all responsibilities — you have to wait to be seen.

If someone’s still managing to do their daily tasks, go to class, do their homework, but are experiencing anxiety or depression that is preventing them from feeling like themselves or being happy in anything they do, they won’t be able to get help immediately. The time between “I want to get help” and actually receiving it at SHS can be anywhere from one to five weeks, especially during the middle of the semester, when they have a higher intake of students seeking services. And that wait can be a huge deterrent for people, so many students don’t end up getting treatment they really need.

Jeanette, undecided, freshman

Yes. I do. When I first came to Wash U, I was very impressed with the number of resources that they say that they have, like SHS and all of these counseling services like Uncle Joe’s, even sexual health resources. So, I thought that, at least on paper — on a surface level — Wash U was a very welcoming, open place and that people were talking about mental health. But, at least in my experience so far, it’s still very taboo to talk about it.

A lot of people talk about the resources and how they’re involved with the resources, but they don’t go one step further and talk about how mental health is actually affecting people. As freshmen, we have one-on-ones with our RAs. I’ve had 2 so far, and all the questions have been nice, but surface level. They’re all “How are your classes,” or “How are your extracurriculars going,” and I think that either the RAs are scared to, or don’t know how to, bring up deeper questions. For example I haven’t been asked any questions like “How are you feeling? Are you stressed? What is a day in your life like?”

Liam, Music Psychology and Acoustics, sophomore

I don’t think there’s a mental health problem unique to Wash U. I think there’s a problem with students not seeking help through the resources we have available. I think that issues faced on this campus are common to colleges and universities, but not everyone takes advantage of the resources that could help. For example, SHS does 20 minute stress relief workshops, and other things like that that could go a long way. But, I think people don’t take advantage of that stuff and they just let everything build up and don’t seek out ways to help themselves.

Kyra, Psychology, pre-med, senior

I think yes and no. I think there are some things, with college campuses in general, that our generation is a lot better about. We’re better about seeking help for our issues, being a little more transparent with our problems, and being able to share them with people and see a professional. However, I also think that Wash U specifically is a very high-stress school, and there’s a lot of pressure from professors and other students. Many people compare themselves to their peers and to some ideal of “perfection.” But, a lot of people don’t actually have it together — but they hide it well. Then, for people who are really truly struggling, they feel like they can’t be vulnerable and can’t share their problems because it looks like everyone else has it together. So, I think that’s a big problem here, mostly because of the caliber of school we’re at.

Mindy, Psychology, English and Anthropology, sophomore

I think that there’s a lot of resources that are trying to make it easier to discuss mental health on campus. At the same time, I think that, at Wash U, like at a lot of universities, students are still really reluctant to bring up those issues if they have personal problems.

Sawyer, undecided, freshman

Yes. I honestly think that Wash U breeds depression. The pressure that comes from always striving toward that A that used to be so easy to get in high school leaves a lot of people perpetually exhausted. I think a lot of kids here don’t realize just how much that pressure constantly weighs you down, and can make your life a living hell in the long run. I’ve known a couple people who have had to leave Wash U because of not being able to handle the stress of the academics. I hear about people all the time who have to take a gap semester or even a gap year because they just need that time off to get ahold of things and not feel like they’re drowning. I think that once you do that, it’s much more difficult to come back to college. So, I wish that the environment here was more conducive to dealing with the issues that people have.

Sara, Psychology & Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, junior

Yes, and I think It’s two-fold. One the one hand, we have this environment that stresses involvement, that tells students that you have to be hyper-involved, which just compounds with an already high rate of mental health problems with college students. Adding that to Wash U — where there’s no sleep, lots of competition, lots of stress, and lots of involvement — what’s a college student supposed to do? Shit happens! This climate is really conducive to an unhealthy mental state. And, we have a lot of parties — over-partying is one way that a lot of students deal with stress. To me, that’s an indicator that we aren’t taking care of our students in other ways, so they’re taking care of themselves through heavy partying.

Minsoo, Mechanical Engineering, senior

The lack of support for people with mental health problems is a big issue. There’s a lot of people here who are buckling under pressure, and you can see this happening anywhere that people can post anonymously. One of the biggest issues I see with Wash U’s mental health support systems is that a lot of it is student-based, like RAs and Uncle Joe’s. I feel like a lot of support that would be crucial for many people isn’t being administered by truly trained professionals who actually know what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s right to make students act as the support for other students.

Washington University in St Louis