Make mental health of students a priority

Photo courtesy of Dani Sisson, Student Publications

A year ago, many of us were filled with uncertainty about the near future as we packed our bags, unsure of how much to take with us, as we prepared for a Spring Break that had a question mark behind its end date.

Since those initial weeks of uncertainty, we have had to learn to navigate a world that is very different from the one in which we were used to living. However, while the external reality of this time may appear foreign, the problems that individuals have faced are often magnifications of what was already in existence.

While many of us continue to navigate worsening financial, mental, and/or physical obstacles throughout this time, life has not stopped, however far from “normal” we may consider it to be.

It is thus apparent that a conversation about being a student during this time necessitates a discussion about mental and emotional well being and the steps that are being taken to address it, both on an individual level, and an institutional one.

I would personally be among the first to preach that wellness is a highly individual journey, and ultimately cannot be undergone without an incredible amount of individual effort.

However, I also believe that idea is not in conflict with the need for an application of institutional responsibility, especially when considering that the ability to access mental health resources is divided along socioeconomic lines.

In a country that rewards individual triumph over hardship often without addressing how those hardships may be diminished, it is no surprise that we have landed on a way of life that incentives and normalizes continual individual sacrifice.

It is also becoming increasingly evident that institutions are willing to capitalize on this idea to shrug off the responsibility they may incur for perpetuating a system that is toxic to the people living within it.

This can be seen in large companies offering “wellness” services, ranging from yoga classes to “stress relieving” group painting sessions — all of which function as an implicit shift in responsibility.

While these may be wonderful gestures that produce joy for a company or school’s employees and students, they are a sorry substitute for sustained mental health help.

“Wellness,” despite all marketing to the contrary, takes practice – it is not something to simply be applied retroactively in times of crisis.

This brings me to Georgia Tech’s decision to gift its students two “wellness days” in the absence of Spring Break this year.

While the decision to cancel Spring Break is a necessary one in regards to the pandemic, the idea that two days off plays any meaningful role in universally ameliorating the mental health crisis that is occurring across schools nationwide is laughable.

Learning to be able to switch between restful and active periods in one’s life is a skill and requires practice.

While I am sure the decisions behind offering students these two days was well-intentioned, it was also horribly ill-informed, as for many this necessitates a prerequisite of mental health training to effectively access.

Many students will continue to work straight through these “wellness” days to meet deadlines, attempt to maintain a feeling of productivity that they have been conditioned to think they constantly need, or simply be unable to adequately rest within the allotted time period.

I am not advocating for more “wellness” days, but rather a paradigm shift for how we look at students’ mental health.

It will ultimately be up to an individual to make use of the resources around them on their own journeys, but an individual should not have to stand alone against a mountain of toxic systemic incentives and an utter lack of accessible resources and be told that it is their responsibility alone to conquer it.

Our institutions share responsibility in the perpetuation of this toxic culture, and thus if their desire is to truly offer mental health aid to the individuals affected by that culture, those institutions have a responsibility to both acknowledge their role in exacerbating it and to offer informed solutions — or at the very least, to ask for help, themselves, as to how.

This year has been taxing on all of us in many different ways, and while the potential for immensely positive change lies within reach, it is not any one person’s responsibility to seize it.

If you or anyone you know is suffering, please reach out to GT Counseling Center, GT Psychiatry, or visit the CDC’s website for mental health resources at cdc.gov/mentalhealth.

While these resources may be imperfect, reaching out in times of need is a crucial part of taking care of your mental health.