Closson: Physical wellness at NU needs further conversation, attention comparable to mental health

Troy Closson, Assistant Opinion Editor

In my high school, students often seemed to be hyperfocused on college admissions, constantly finding ways to cram as many higher-level classes as possible into their schedules while also fitting in way too many extracurricular activities, clubs and sports. Everyone seemed to be doing it all and there was a lot of pressure to do so. Coming to Northwestern, that hasn’t necessarily changed.

Throughout my high school, however, conversations about mental health and well-being rarely occurred. While students might have brought up the fact that they were stressed or going through mental health-related challenges, conversations often ended there and discussions about ways to change that culture hardly took place. Similarly in my family — and within many black communities I’ve been a part of — mental health has been an under-discussed subject. Despite the fact that studies have shown that African Americans are more likely to report having serious psychological distress than whites, black young adults are less likely to seek out mental health services. Personally, I’ve also experienced challenges in reaching out for assistance with mental health because doing so can often come with negative perceptions within black communities.

And even though this campus’ atmosphere surrounding mental health has at times felt similar to that of my high school, in many ways I’ve noticed how much more open this environment has been in discussing it. Although NU’s culture can often normalize stress, de-prioritize sleep and push mental health aside, mental health is at least addressed and brought up much more often than in previous environments I’ve been in, and initiatives exist to both raise discussion and access to services.

Yet while mental health is often discussed more at NU than in communities I’ve been in, something less commonly addressed but just as important to college students’ experiences is physical well-being and its associated challenges.

College students may face many potential food and nutrition-related challenges, especially during their first years. Next year, as the University begins requiring first-year students to sign up for an “Open Access” meal plan — basically just a variation of the unlimited plan — some students may have much more consistent and regular access to both healthy and unhealthy food when arriving on campus. But conversations about how to deal with this, in terms of nutrition, moderation, exercise and other aspects of physical wellness aren’t emphasized.

While concepts like the “freshman fifteen” are often brushed over in discussions about the transition to college, real and structured conversations about physical wellness have rarely occurred since I arrived on campus. And despite the fact that mental health conversations can often feel prioritized over those about physical wellness, both issues can often go hand-in-hand. College students can feel pressure to have the “perfect” body and become consumed with concern about their appearances or clothing, something that involves both physical and mental health. Similarly, students may feel they have less time for attention to personal wellness because of NU’s “AND is in our DNA” culture. Despite the fact that both physical and mental wellness can be relevant concerns on campus and impacted by various identities students hold, the conversation often only leans in one direction.

None of this is to say that mental health should take a backseat to physical wellness or that conversations about mental health should stop. Coming from communities that rarely discussed or brought up mental health, however, I’ve noticed how despite various issues, mental health is at least addressed much more readily, in a way that physical wellness just isn’t.

As my first year at NU comes to a close, I’ve started to reflect on my experiences on campus much more. Because of how readily conversations about mental health take place on campus, I’ve become more aware of stigma surrounding mental health in black communities I’m part of in my home state. But at the same time, I believe changing conversations — or even just starting conversations — surrounding physical wellness is essential to bettering students’ experiences as a whole, and giving it an equal platform to mental health on campus could greatly improve overall well-being.

Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.