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 firstname.lastname@example.org