Houchins: To address mental health, let’s look to ourselves first

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Houchins: To address mental health, let’s look to ourselves first

Natalie Houchins, Guest Columnist

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After four suicides in the past two years, I absolutely, 100 percent agree that our school’s mental health facilities leave much to be desired. Although I applaud students who have made efforts to change this — and I will continue to support them — we should not have to do this job ourselves. We shouldn’t have to demand that mental health be high on the University’s list of priorities. Although we shouldn’t stop pushing the administration, I would like to turn our attention to the student culture of Northwestern, which is something we can tangibly change on a daily basis, for free.

First of all, I just want to acknowledge openly that, although I honestly wouldn’t go anywhere else, NU can be an incredibly toxic environment.

During winter and spring quarters last year, I fell into the worst depression of my life. I had never wanted to die before this. I hurt myself, I planned my suicide, and I was so embarrassed about it I didn’t tell people until much later. This doesn’t mean I’m not functional. It just means sometimes I experience roaring despair and crippling anxiety. And I’m not alone. I know I’m not alone because four students in the past year have killed themselves. And that’s pretty awful.

My anxiety and depression are heightened because I go to a school where competition dominates so much of our social interaction. We treat ourselves like robots, churning out papers, exams, assignments, resumes and – if you’re a theater major like me – audition for shows and survive tech weeks. We attend board meetings, create initiatives, go to parties and binge drink for fear of missing out. I know this isn’t unique to NU, but it’s what I’ve observed since I came here in the fall of 2010. And it makes me incredibly unhappy to watch my peers break their backs and run on five hours or less of sleep a night, just to do everything “right.” And we aren’t just doing this to ourselves. We’re doing this to each other, too. It’s as if we are all imbued with some original sin that creates an overwhelming sense of guilt when we’re not “doing something.”

What is success? What is “doing well”? The less we classify what these categories mean, the less pressure we put on one other.

Let’s praise our friends for making decisions that they feel good about. Let’s praise our friends for taking care of themselves. Let’s praise our friends for doing things that make them genuinely happy. Let’s be gentle with each other and ourselves. Let’s push to be better in a productive way. Let’s value each other not just for how much we do, but what we are actually doing, and whom it affects.

The real world will be critical and harsh enough. While we’re here, let’s remember that life can be long and will unfurl itself slowly. We don’t have to do everything now. We don’t have to grow up yet, and we don’t have to have everything figured out.

Let’s let ourselves be huge messes when we need it. Let’s pick each other up when we’re down. Let’s allow each other to be at once totally homesick and also incredibly happy to be out on our own. Let’s only do the things we want to do while we’re here. Let’s watch Netflix shamelessly. Let’s pursue knowledge because we want to learn, not because we want a degree. Let’s experiment. Let’s get more sleep. Let’s accept that we’re all human and that sometimes when we’re smiling we don’t mean it. Let’s live in contradictions. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s acknowledge that the winter really sucks here and affects our moods. Let’s spend an hour in Norris not doing work. Let’s eat our vegetables and a whole jar of Nutella, too. Let’s ecstatically defy the pressures that await us when we graduate.

Together.

Natalie Houchins is a Communication senior. She can be reached at nataliehouchins@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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