Stein: Students must cultivate culture of concern for one another

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Kate Stein, Guest Columnist

I didn’t know Dmitri Teplov. He was in my Intro to Macroeconomics class, but I didn’t know that until Prof. Mark Witte brought up his death at the end of lecture Monday.

I don’t fault myself for not knowing him — our lecture has more than 200 students in it, so encountering him, let alone realizing he was struggling, was unlikely. The same is true for most of the other students in the lecture. Statistically speaking, though, some people in the class must have encountered Dmitri at some point. And while they probably didn’t recognize he was struggling, had they been looking, they might have.

Let me make it clear: I am not criticizing those students who encountered Dmitri and didn’t see he was depressed or suicidal. I am criticizing Northwestern students in general for being too self-oriented, so self-oriented that we fail to recognize how others are having a hard time. We’re busy. I get it. Northwestern provides many, many opportunities that we wouldn’t get at other schools, and we want to take advantage of as many as possible. We also have high standards for ourselves, and meeting those standards — academically, athletically, etc. — takes more time than it would if our standards were lower. By themselves, these are not bad things. But when our desire to excel comes at the cost of our own or others’ emotional and psychological well-being, or worse, at the cost of lives, we need to rethink our priorities.

There has been a lot of discussion about the shortcomings of Counseling and Psychological Services and other mental health resources on campus. No doubt some aspects of those services could be improved, but the fundamental problem isn’t a lack of resources. Rather, it’s a lack of concern among students about their peers. In asking for more counselors or programs, what we’re really asking for is a simple solution to a problem that we don’t want to address ourselves. That isn’t to say we don’t care about other students — we do. We just don’t make caring for them our top priority. Until we change this, the mental health problem on campus isn’t going to improve, regardless of how many CAPS staff members or programs we add.

So what can we do? The key is to start thinking about other people as our priority, in whatever form that takes. It could be as simple as asking a classmate how their day is going and then listening — really listening — to their response. It could be inviting someone sitting alone in a dining hall to sit with you. It could be going to have coffee with an acquaintance, and seeing if you can make a new friend or at least a new connection.

It isn’t enough to just reach out to your friends. The people struggling the most probably aren’t the ones who have friends like you. You may feel awkward or uncomfortable in talking to someone you don’t know well. You may feel you’re wasting time that could be better spent studying. So be it. Your awkwardness or lower grade is worth less than someone else’s happiness or, in Dmitri’s case, someone else’s life.

Kate Stein is a Medill freshman and a former Daily staffer. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].