October 28, 2022 | OPINION | By Sam Treat
Trigger Warning: This article discusses topics of mental health and suicide.
I wish I could be sitting down to write another fun, lighthearted food review. The current circumstances on campus do not allow me to write a fluff piece like that with a clear conscience. The way that Colorado College continues to handle student mental health is absolute bullshit and only perpetuates the problems that are abundant on this campus.
Unfortunately, our campus community suffered another major loss recently. Once again, the school’s response was to send a generic email –– the first of which created chaos –– with the same buzzwords and the same list of resources they use when anything tragic happens. The fact that the school sent out an email with no context other than that a student died shows how entirely out of touch with the realities of mental health at college the administration is. After that email was sent, I had to text all my friends and roommates to make sure they were okay.
Likewise, I received texts and calls from many concerned friends. The purpose of that email is still baffling to me –– on so many levels. Why strike fear and panic into the heart of every student and then stay silent for the next few hours?
Even when the emails with the identity of the deceased do come, they are routinely riddled with errors. I can personally attest, without being more specific for privacy reasons, that the adjectives and short descriptions written about the students do not come close to encapsulating the essence of those we lost –– furthermore, they are often down-right wrong. These cookie-cutter responses are bullshit and do more harm than good.
With all due respect and privacy to the students who have passed (names will be omitted) and their families, we need to talk about this. In the last six months (less, really), three students have died. Two of those deaths occurred on this campus.
We have a problem with mental health, whether anyone is willing to say that out loud or not. All three of those students were male-identifying and two of them played sports here. Those are not markers to identify the victims, but an inside look at the groups on campus that appear to be struggling with mental health the most, or at the very least, the most silently. It is a known fact that the stigma around male mental health is atrocious, especially around sports –– why then, are we still not addressing it?
For a school that professes its commitment to ending the stigma of mental health, the administration remained unbelievably quiet on this issue until President Richardson’s email on Oct. 17. That is unacceptable, and while I understand the need to be respectful and tread lightly in the wake of these incidents, to ignore the reality is far more harmful to all. It is unacceptable for the school to rely on excuses about the need for privacy and respect in tough times in lieu of doing anything substantive beyond the cookie cutter emails and one or two vigils they may hold (where those closest to the deceased aren’t even made aware). If the school can’t see there is a problem, it is because they are a part of it. The stigma surrounding mental health is not over, especially not on this campus.
It is hard to articulate the pain and grief that the loss of life accompanies. Truly, I couldn’t even fathom it until I lost someone important in my life. To ask students to continue with the rigor of the Block Plan, without so much as a pause or acknowledgment in most classes, is to ask students to sacrifice their wellbeing more than this school already demands. One day off classes, while not even close to enough time to grieve, should be the minimum accommodation the school gives. We are a small, tight-knit campus –– even the school emails concede this point. When someone passes, regardless of the circumstances, the student body will be affected.
If the school is truly prioritizing mental health over academics, there should be no issue accommodating this request. If somehow the school finds such a request to be outside the realm of possibility, they can at least excuse all absences for those who do need to take time. It is not productive in the slightest for a grieving student to be forced to listen to a three-hour lecture the day after someone they know passed on. How can any well-meaning, rational individual disagree with such a statement?
Mental health is incredibly close to my heart. I realize that I can’t write a piece like this, where I call out the school for not talking about mental health, and then remain silent about my own (as I have chosen to for so long). My battle with mental health has been long and complicated. I grew up in a household where members of my immediate family struggled with substance-use issues, creating a family dynamic that I often resented being a part of. To this day, it is the reason I don’t drink alcohol. I have been in and out of therapy since I was eight years old, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression a few years back. During my first year at CC, one member of my immediate family was hospitalized for self-harm/attempted suicide and committed to a mental institution for months; the next week I had to talk another family member out of a suicidal state as they relapsed on their problem substance.
At the same time, I was starting college (on campus this time, not Zoom) in January in Colorado, during the height of the pandemic. I was in a dingy Matthias single (not by choice, but my assigned roommate never showed up), and between the COVID-restrictions, the cold dark winters, and my family seemingly imploding, I fell into a state of deeper depression than I ever had before. My absolute avoidance of substances caused me to refuse the antidepressants that the doctors were recommending I go on. My pride, and the fear I held about people’s perceptions of me prevented me from reaching out to others around me. For my whole life, I have been a loud voice, a big presence; I walk into rooms with confidence and take up space. Nobody expects that person to be struggling. But I was struggling.
It got to the point where I had a plan to end my life, and I came incredibly close to doing it. I am not saying that for pity, a feeling I never want people to have for me, but to do my part to help break the stigma around suicide and mental health. I am happy to say that I am doing much better than I was when I got to that dark place. My entire family is doing better than they were, and I have nothing but love for all of them. It took a lot of therapy, a lot of self-care, a lot of support, but we all got through.
See, the thing is that mental health is not easy. It is incredibly, incredibly, challenging. It took so much work for me to get where I am now, and that work continues every day. I am grateful that my privilege and family situation allowed me access to mental health resources that contributed to my ultimate wellbeing. Many students do not have the same privileges that I did. Furthermore, even some that do come from backgrounds that put a taboo on therapy and mental healthcare.
If this school wants to help, it needs to start by addressing those issues. We need more counselors (and better-equipped counselors), and the school needs to offer more than six free sessions with them. Six sessions, speaking from experience, is barely enough to establish a meaningful relationship and the trust necessary to make real progress. It baffles me that in the wake of a tragedy, there isn’t at least a temporary expansion of resources (i.e. another counselor on call, a temporary grieving space, a support group, or really any mental health initiative like therapy dogs on campus, etc.). However, to create real change about mental health on campus, we need to expand those resources on a permanent basis.
I love Colorado College. I love the Block Plan. I think many of us feel that way. Yet, the reality of this institution and the Block Plan as a whole is that it can take a toll on the mental health of the students. There is a certain level of mental health that we agree to sacrifice in order to be successful at a demanding and academically powerful institution, such as CC. But what’s happened this year suggests to me that we aren’t checking in on each other, aren’t putting in the care we all need and deserve. I believe that the school’s response, including that of professors and faculty (from what I know), has been insufficient at best.
I have never been asked about how I am doing by a professor, and mental health is not a topic that many adults at this campus seem to feel comfortable talking about in a meaningful way. As hard as they may try (because, despite my criticisms, I do believe that the administration and faculty do try), I think the adults on this campus do not understand the rigors of academia and the strain it can place on the students. I know I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I don’t have any answers at all –– but I do know there is a problem.
We are the students here and we are struggling. The faculty seem to understand the responsibility they have for ensuring our education. But what about our well-being? Doesn’t the school, and every adult who constitutes this institution, share in a responsibility for ensuring that we are okay? Not just that we show up for class, or do our homework, but that we are okay, that we can be happy members of our campus community, and that we can have faith in our administration to take care of us.