While some aspects of Georgetown such as the mystical labyrinthine nature of the ICC or the disarming charm of Jack the Bulldog have remained faithfully consistent, many aspects of campus life have changed over the past four years. The campus’ mental health culture is one of them. The matter, formerly reserved to an intensely individual experience aside from some passing reference given at orientation and a few pamphlets, has now been prominently featured in Georgetown’s print media. Dialogues and educational programming are more common, prominent campus organizations like the Georgetown University Student Association and Corp Philanthropy have explicitly prioritized addressing mental health issues and new student groups have formed to discuss the issue.
One such group is Active Minds, and my involvement in it has afforded me both the acquaintance of talented and passionate individuals and my most rewarding experience on the Hilltop.
But before I was the president of Active Minds, before I was a member of the GUSA sub-committee on mental health, before I was, as one friend termed me, “an unlikely poster boy for depression,” I was uninformed and uninterested in the subject of mental health. I possessed some passing familiarity with “the issues” — depression, mental illness, suicide — yet they seemed to belong in the world of PSA commercials, bus stop posters, and teary stories, eons away from me and my peers’ universe of self-reliance.
In the absence of substantive knowledge, these seemed, to misinformed underclassmen, more like excuses than evidence of an issue. It was a satisfactory narrative, and it handily placated the nagging sense of emptiness and the emotional void that had harassed me throughout my younger years. Only once my unrecognized depression had grown to consume my vitality and passion for life entirely, and ultimately even my simple capacity for thought, did I have little choice but to accept both the existence and salience of poor mental health.
Only once I had experienced my own hardships was I motivated to become involved in the conversation. While I cite my contribution to mental health advocacy as among my greatest achievements as a Hoya, the delay in my action stands out as among my greatest failures. The importance of mental well-being is not reserved to merely those who are lacking it, and in reflection, I cannot help but feel selfish that it took a personal impetus to reach this realization. I am hopeful that you, dear reader, are not nearly as self-centered and won’t make the same mistake, which brings us to the aim of this piece: why should you care?
First, let’s clarify that the usage of the term “mental health” is not immediately in reference to the lack thereof, nor does it refer to a binary of “good” or “bad,” but rather a spectrum along which we all fall somewhere. As an avid runner, I would consider myself relatively fit physically, but I still frequent the gym and continue training, as my fitness is not fixed. In the same manner, while my emotional well-being may be termed as “good,” I still take measures to develop and preserve it through activities such as reflective journaling or meditation. We tend to the intellectual aspect of mental health with our vigorous studies; it follows that we should exercise the same vigor in tending to the emotional aspect.
Second, mental health is not a burden, not a monthly bill to be begrudgingly paid off, but rather a means of greater success in apparently unrelated endeavors. Typically, we cite “happiness” as the big takeaway, but in such areas as personal relationships, cognitive abilities (especially memory) and industriousness, personal emotional well-being has documented benefits.
Finally, and most importantly, even if you are the paragon of “well-adjusted,” more likely than not you will find yourself in the position of supporting someone who is not such a paragon, and possessing even the most basic knowledge of mental health can make the biggest difference. If it wasn’t for a friend who was able to recognize what I had disregarded as “a funk” as symptomatic of depression, and who recommended that I see CAPS, it is unlikely that any of this would have transpired, and impossible that I’d be writing to you on this matter.
The true realization of a campus community that fosters greater mental health will not be achieved by sweeping reform or the work of a handful of advocates, but by you. By 2 a.m. common room conversations, by occasionally tear-stained shoulder lent to others, by human empathy, by those who are there for their friends and not-friends alike. Reaching out to someone going through a rough time need not be predicated by existing acquaintance, only human compassion.
To those who have heard my message, I leave you with this:
Be better than the ignorant, selfish guy I was. Because there are more people counting on you than you might think, and you have more to offer than you know. Our minds are one of our most precious gifts; they can only continue to grow if we take steps, whatever they may be, to appropriately care for ourselves and support our fellow Hoyas.
Ben Saunders is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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