Category: Mental Health

After reading a post about the Free Time Initiative, junior Robbie Netzborg shared his personal experience with mental health on campus and his opinion on the matter on Facebook. Here’s what he had to say.

Content Warning: suicide, mental health

Note: There are people with lots of extenuating circumstances, and I wholeheartedly agree that the university can and should do more to help people with these circumstances succeed at Columbia.

I’m usually not someone who writes on Facebook, but something really rubbed me the wrong way about your post on the Free Time initiative and I’ve just noticed this as a general idea that people have here. Sorry if my post seems confrontative or annoying, I genuinely do not mean to cause anyone to feel personal harm. But, as students, how can we honestly look at the university and blame them entirely for the stress culture here? What more can the university do to help reduce the stress culture here on campus?

Imagine yourself in the position of the university. You have collected from all around the United States and the world, from a wide-range of backgrounds, students who have pushed themselves to succeed academically — or, at the very least, students who have that as some sort of priority. We students push ourselves to our limits on a constant basis, whether it be to sign up for just one more class, work one more job, go to one more protest, or to fight one more fight. These students, understandably, will try to do anything to pursue their goals, to be the best that they can possibly be, but then we find ourselves here.

Before we know it, when we were all at the top of our classes, we’re now just a regular person in a large pool of people (what could be more insulting for the overachiever?). Success is something that should be given when you make it here but suddenly it doesn’t seem like it. All our peers around us are so much smarter than we are, they seem to be so much more capable than we are. You play an instrument? Good for you, the person next to you plays five at a professional level. You like math? That’s cute, I was doing real analysis by the time I got out of the womb. Our talents that previously marked our identities, that used be something you’d love to share with people, are now threatened. Our identities are threatened. For some people, to overcome that threat, they push themselves beyond their limits.

Now you’re in the university’s shoes. What do you do? Students need someone to talk to. Open up a mental health center on campus that provides therapy through walk-in hours, group sessions, and scheduled appointments. Students are stressed out from pushing themselves to their limits. Lower the credit limit. Give advice (albeit sometimes really, really horrible advice) on how to better manage your time. As an organization, you make an attempt to help the people who are members of that organization.

Now, to digress, I’d like to talk about my personal experience and why I’ve decided to write at all. This is, of course, is my personal account and there are plenty of flaws, details, and biases that people can and should point to in my story to qualify it. But, it’s my life here at Columbia regardless, so here it is.

During a particularly bad period in high school I suffered from suicidal thoughts. I never acted on them, and luckily my parents noticed that I was suffering and put me into therapy, and, through a series of events, I was eventually put on antidepressants. By the end of senior year, I felt entirely comfortable and happy in my life and decided to go off of the pills. It seemed like a temporary thing that I had gotten over.

When I came here to Columbia, I was first completed transfixed with everything that was going on. There are so many cool people, interesting classes to take, things to do. I tried to meet as many people as I could and to take the classes that I found the most interesting. Over time, however, the honeymoon period began to end. Whereas before people had been incredibly social, I found myself eating alone staring at the wooden wall in the John Jay bar area. I really didn’t feel like I belonged in the group that I found then, so I felt insignificant.

I’ve kept a journal for the past six years, and here are some of the things that I wrote back then: “Why am I in a friend group that I consider myself hated and unwelcomed in?” and “There’s a sadness within me and I have a feeling it has something to do with this overbearing sensation of self-disdain.” (Sorry, I like to wax poetic in my journal). As the first semester ended, I felt miserable. To cut things short, life didn’t really feel worth living. When I came back second semester, things only got worse. Things just kept getting worse and worse. After every single failed social interaction or academic test I’d go back to my room and think to myself, “Why the fuck am I alive?” I’d then let my eyes drift towards the window and think about how the exit was right there, and all I had to do was jump. All the thoughts were there, the only thing missing was the spark.

Due to a particularly bad day, I came home to my dorm in tears. I couldn’t take it anymore. I saw myself in the mirror and hated myself. hated who’d I become. Hated everything that I’d done. Hated the very fact that I kept breathing. Without really thinking about it, I ran over towards the window and propped it open and tried to climb out. Luckily, I couldn’t fit through and my roommate happened to come back a couple moments later. Deus ex machina I guess.

After going to bed that night, I woke up the next day in a more stable mood and realized the gravity of what I had just tried to do. There are two factors that led me to still be here today. First was the fact that I had already gone to therapy before and knew (and know) that therapy could be a possible solution (but, the question that bugged me was, is life worth living if I’m never going to be able to be happy?). The second, and much more important, was that a distant-ish friend reached out to me. Not someone who I was spending a majority of my time with. Not someone I considered to be incredibly close to. They said that they were there for me if I needed anyone to talk to and that the university has resources if I needed them. After talking with them, I called CPS and had an appointment the next day.

Now, as a junior, life’s a whole lot better here, but it could have been a completely different story. And here’s the reason why I decided to share what happened to me and why I’m posting here at all: the main thing that got me over my depression and my suicidal thoughts was the fact that I was lucky enough to have a friend who happened to reach out to me when I was at my worst and point me in the right direction.

Here’s the question I pose, though, to every single Columbia student: when was the last time you reached out to a friend who seemed down? When was the last time you walked over to someone sitting in that damned John Jay bar area and started talking to them? I’ve walked around this campus, sat in random places, and just watched people interact with one another. We don’t talk to strangers. No one bothers to ask the person who’s sitting alone whether or not they’d want to join them or how they’re doing. I remember sitting in John Jay holding back tears because I felt so alone.

Now, I read the post about how the university’s not doing enough to support mental health initiatives. What the fuck can the university do for me when I’m all by myself? When I’m sitting alone with no friends or having friends close enough to spend time with me but not close enough to seriously help me out, what should the university do? Will the university pay people to pity me enough to spend time with me and genuinely become my friend? Will I become best friends with Dean Kromm?

Columbia has an empathy problem, and every one of us is responsible for maintaining it. If anyone who is serious about making a difference in mental health here on campus is reading this, stop blaming the university (although there’s plenty of blame on their part), and go out and do what you can do to seriously change one of your peer’s lives. Reach out to the friends you haven’t seen in a while or who seem distant. If you see someone sitting by themselves at a dining hall, talk to them! The mental health issue at Columbia is something that we as students can overcome, if we choose to do so. It’s just lip-service to go around blaming the university if you’re not willing to actually do something personally to help your community. There are so many unhappy people here on campus, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We the student body, not the university, can do something about it other than writing nasty letters. We have to make Columbia a place where people who feel like they’re suffering can lean on the person next to them for support, not a place where a person feels like they’re in an uphill battle against the world.

As we have these conversations about stress culture and mental health, we think it is important to share some of the resources available on campus to members of the Columbia community:

Counseling and Psychological Services – (212) 854-2878
Columbia Health – (212) 854-7426
Office of the University Chaplain – (212) 854-1493
Advising Deans – (212) 854-6378
Nightline – (212) 854-7777

If you’d like to respond to this piece / submit an op-ed to The Lion, please email submissions@thecolumbialion.com

Photo from the 2014 film Güeros.

There is a moment in Alonso Ruizpalacio’s 2014 film, Güeros, that has stayed with me since my first viewing: following a confrontation with an angry neighbor, the film’s trio flees the scene by car, and Sombra, the protagonist’s older brother, lies in the backseat undergoing what is clearly meant to be an audiovisual representation of a panic attack.

The scene owes much of its haunting memorability to its experimental track. A selection of ambient sounds—an eerie screech, a low rumble, and an incessant beep—intensify in sync to Sombra’s deteriorating mental condition, blurring his vision and muting the pleading voice of his younger brother (shown above) until his whole existence is reduced to the mere sound of frantic breaths against the backdrop of perilous sonic waves, which are evidently threatening to overtake him.

The reason this scene continues to leave such a lasting impression on me is simple: I, too, suffer from anxiety, and the scene’s mise-en-scène (everything that physically appears before the camera) seamlessly blends with the avant-garde dreaminess and apprehension of the score to elicit a convincing and uniform reproduction of my mental affliction.

In fact, when I first saw this film, two years ago, I was in the midst of my own personal Crisis. This took place seconds after I realized it was mathematically impossible for me to pass one of my CS classes, and that, consequently, I would be unable to graduate from Columbia within the traditional four-year span. Suffice to say, this colossal failure (“colossal,” insofar as it was the only notable one in my life thus far) amplified my anxiety-inducing imposter syndrome to the point where I physically couldn’t leave my room; the specificities of what followed, however, are for another time.

For now, I wish to briefly ruminate on one of cinema’s most sacred, primordial powers, illustrated by the aforementioned example: its ability to instill in the viewer catharsis (Greek: “katharsis,” meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) through poignant verisimilitude, especially as it relates to life’s immanently tragic nature.

As Aristotle teaches us in his seminal work on tragedy, Poetics, this experience is marked by a profoundly satisfying purgation of “negative” emotions, especially those characterized by fear and pity. In the end—if all has gone well—the viewer reemerges with the consoling reaffirmation that, despite one’s misfortunes, they will be able to cope nonetheless; in other words, that everything will end up okay.

But, on a more primal level, why do we experience catharsis at the movies at all?

Here it is helpful to quote the German Continental philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is best known for his 1960 work on hermeneutics, Truth and Method, in which he writes:

“What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself and his finiteness in the face of the power of fate…To see that ‘this is how it is’ is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions he, like everyone else, lives.” (132)

The first step in reaching catharsis, “recognition,” is not to be misunderstood as something immediate, for this is the process by which the artist aims to get the viewer to empathize with the protagonist on at least some level (this implies neither likeability nor relatability—think Walter White from Breaking Bad). Neither should it be seen as “contextual” recognition: after all, who else has ever found themselves literally trapped by a boulder in a remote slot canyon in southeastern Utah (127 Hours)? The recognition, then, is a thematic one: to use the previous example, the viewer is familiar with the general feeling of being suddenly pitted against a formidable obstacle which, despite your initial off-guardedness, will come to test the limits of your resolution.

The instant of catharsis occurs when the character’s suffering reaches its crescendo because it is here that the “power of fate” is most viscerally felt. Having been emotionally “led on” by the artist, the character has become us in the abstract sense, so that their trials and tribulations are likewise our own. Hence, we too are subjected to the great emotional weight of intense suffering when the crescendo arrives. It is here that the recognition realizes its consummate form as an utterly affective phenomenon.

It is the aim of the artist to lead the viewer to this step of “affective immersion,” without which the next step is not possible: the acquisition of what Gadamer terms “self-knowledge,” or “new insight.” This is the most important stage of catharsis, for it is here that art fulfills its primordial power: the viewer can now walk away with a rejuvenating, newfound emotional clarity. All that is left is the dissection of this clarity and the study of its personal implications.

For me, after watching Güeros, this meant sitting in shock for several hours, letting the weight of time slowly crush me as I slowly accepted the terrifying reality of my situation: I was having a chronic panic attack, fueled by a feral wave of anxiety, and was caught up in a truly desperate situation which seemed to have no end in sight.

Finally, cinema’s greatest gift: the capacity to incite radical change in the viewer, for the betterment of his or her situation, or those of others.

For me to get up and say:

“Hm…Maybe it’s time I got out now.”

 

The Seventh Art is written by Juan Gomez and runs every other Sunday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.

 

Foreword: With Dean Valentini urging Columbia students to talk to Columbia Counselling and Psychological Services, I wonder if Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen had tried these services. Has anyone? We essentially seem to be unequipped to deal with catastrophes like this. This article is mainly written not to give the best solution, but to ask for solutions. What can we do better to prevent things like this from happening again? What improvements can be made?

Today I received an email from Dean James Valentini about the apparent suicide of an exchange student at Columbia College from Waseda University in Japan. It is not the first time since my first year in Columbia that I received an email like this.

But that is not the scariest part. It is not the death that is happening so close to us that we fear, but the oblivious bystanders.

The oblivion of this world.

My first reaction to the email is: if it happened yesterday, why is no one talking about it today?

Death at this moment has become a private matter. Only a small group of people are suffering in an unknown corner of this world, while the vast majority don’t even seem to care.

This earth, without her, keeps spinning around its axis.

No one knows that she took her own life that day. If not for the email, I even would not know anything about it. Even people living in the same floor with her may not have a clue. Right now, I am sitting in the Columbia Writing Center, and people around me seem to mind their own business, jumping and rushing around to fix their essays to get an A in the class.

But at the same time, someone, someone that I might have passed by every single day on campus on my way to University Writing, gave up her life.

The parallel is striking. The same road we choose to cross every single day may lead to a drastically different ending.

I talked to several friends about the news, but all I got are just oblivious, brush-it-off, I-don’t-know-what-to-say answers. The conversations quickly die off or move on to another topic.

Is it just me? Or is the world is so used to catastrophe and death that no one seems to care anymore? Or is it only my world that is so full of translucent fragile bubbles that when death tumbles on its feet near me, it is so easily crashed.

For those who are so used to seeing death, their world must be made from cotton, muffling their ears so well that they can easily move back to their original tracks when death missed them merely.

Yeah, my next-door neighbor killed herself, but I have a midterm tomorrow.

I don’t really know her. I need to study.

It is so curious how the world deals with the death of a stranger, as it happens so often.

On this campus that breaths of liveliness and ambition, it also buries lives. Very often.

But what role do we play in this ridiculous game of life, in an event like this?

We bear witness. For the deceased lives.

Is death or suicide still meaningful if no one knows about it?

If no one knows me in this world, is my life still meaningful?

Do we live for ourselves or for people who know us?

Do you still choose life over death adamantly if no one cares about you in this world?

If you live in agony and solitude, do you choose to live?

Or would you choose death, even when you are surrounded by people who love you deeply?

I have to end my writing process also at this moment because my appointment is up for discussing the paper due tomorrow.

I also have to throw myself entirely into another conversation because there are things that I have to prioritize as well.

I talked to my parents and my friends, but all of their responses reveal the inertness and the powerless of words when facing the topic of death.

When death merely missed us, the mixed feeling of regret, relief, fear, anger, grief, sorrow cannot be concluded by a simple word.

Many people choose to ignore that feeling because it happens every second. 1.8 people die every second, to be exact. By the time you finished reading this sentence, 4 people have died.

Th human mind seems incapable to deal with the fact that the world is dying every half second.

Just like no one can celebrate every birth of a new born child, no one can grieve for every death that is happening around the world.

We simply don’t have enough joy and sorrow for strangers.

Our emotion seems reserved and ephemeral at this moment. Reserved because of the emotional distance between the person and us. Ephemeral because of the limited time.

Are we oblivious? Or do we simply save it for people we care?

We approach the topic of death with caution. Isn’t it because that we are afraid that we will spread too thin in the face of catastrophe?

The world keeps spinning not because it is okay without her, but because MY world is okay without her.

We all have limited emotion reserve. I am really sorry that I cannot share a piece of my pie with you. I am truly sorry.

But at the same time, in the deep corner of our heart, don’t we feel a little lucky that we don’t know her at all?

Because of the strangeness, we can tip-toe dancing around her death, wasting the life that she no longer had.

We are innocent from the news, so we don’t know what happened, so we don’t care, so we are oblivious.

But can we keep pretending when Columbia sends us an email to let us be informed?

Do we have the right to choose to be uninformed when death comes near? I guess, we can always choose to distance ourselves from death. We can choose oblivion.

But, can we?

Should we?

I have to move on, eventually.

I am the bystander who chooses to bear witness.

I can choose oblivion, but somebody cannot. They have to wait for time to heal their wounds.

I fear the oblivion, but I understand it. Because in this world, every single second, there are someone who is overjoyed for life, and someone who suffers from it.

These two things happen everywhere at the same time.

They can be 100,000 miles, or the thickness of a wooden door from each other.

She laughs, I cry.

He cries, you laugh.

We begin to understand this world. We begin to understand the double-sided nature of joy and sorrow. We begin to understand ourselves.

We start to know life, a little by little.

At the same time, the frat parties are still on tonight next door to the campus.

If you need to reach out to someone regarding mental health, these resources are at your disposal:

Remi Free/Senior Graphics Editor

I fondly remember the first time I arrived at Columbia. There was a humongous smile across my face as the taxi driver drove my mother and me through the College Walk gates for CUE move in. All those months of high school paid off and I was about to start classes at a school I never imagined I’d ever attend. My mind was racing as I tried to meticulously plan my schedule and goals for the next four years. It felt like I found my new home and nothing could go wrong.

Fast forward two years as I was wrapping up sophomore year. I was running on five hours of sleep, stressed beyond measure, and profusely sweating as I moved my stuff out of my residence hall and into a storage facility for the summer.

Instead of all the happy memories I had when I first arrived to Columbia, my mind was just — bitter. I wanted out. I just wanted to move out and head home and get as far away from Morningside Heights as I could.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Columbia and all the resources it has to offer, but with all these benefits come the inevitable pitfalls of attending one of the most stressful and prestigious universities in the world.

As I progressed through each semester at Columbia, I slowly adapted to some of our school’s more detrimental traditions. I would stay up until the early hours of the morning working, overload myself with too many classes and commitments than I should have gone through with. I would fall into the constant conversation trap of discussing how many hours you spent studying in Butler on a given day as if that meant anything (news flash: it means absolutely nothing). Even as I tried harder and harder in my classes, I continued to perform below my own expectations and goals.

It didn’t help that some of my professors seemed to encourage students to engage in these traditions. In one of my classes, my professor seemed proud of the fact that he expected you to still perform poorly on his tests no matter how much you studied and that he hoped others wouldn’t help you when you struggled on your homework assignments. It got so bad that whenever they sent announcements to our class, I actually felt a sense of dread; I just wanted it to be over.

As I boarded my flight back home after leaving my storage unit, I felt myself feel happy and relaxed for the first time in a while.

So this upcoming semester, I’m going to do something different. I am not going to let myself fall prey to trying to underhandedly compete with others on how little sleep I got or how much time I spent sitting in Butler. Instead, I’m going to work on taking the classes I love, setting aside more time for myself and exploring the city. I actively intend to talk with my professors more and be more willing to tell them when I think they’re adding to Columbia’s already troubling stress culture.

When first year me arrived on campus, he looked forward to being his authentic self and not letting others get the best of him. Hopefully junior year me can make sure to bring that attitude and spirit back into fashion.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.