Defining Safe: A Northwestern student shares mental health struggles, and why NU should do more

Cassidy Jackson, Audio Editor

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CASSIDY JACKSON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cassidy Jackson. Thanks for tuning in, and welcome to the fifth episode of “Defining Safe.” In honor of May being Mental Health Month, I asked a student about her mental health journey and where she feels safe on campus.

ZHANG: Mental health is something that I grew up knowing was important, which I think a lot of people may not necessarily have experienced.

JACKSON: This is SESP senior Michelle Zhang.

ZHANG: I went to Gunn High School, which was in Palo Alto, California. It’s pretty famous for its suicide clusters within the last decade. So the first suicide cluster was when I was in middle school. It was definitely five or more students who passed away who were related to the district within a year. And I personally knew the siblings of one of those students. Kind of sporadically between that first cluster and the second cluster, there were other occasional suicides. Basically, between me in middle school and me in high school, it was just this period of time where the community was really aware that it was a problem. The story sort of fizzled out over time, until I was a senior in high school where there was another suicide cluster of four students/alum who were related to the district, two of whom I personally knew. One of them I met in elementary school. One of them I met in middle school. And that, I think, was a turning point in the community.

JACKSON: The first suicide cluster happened when you were in middle school. The second that you experienced was senior year of high school.

ZHANG: Yeah.

JACKSON: What was that like to leave a community I guess on that note?

ZHANG: Yeah, it was definitely really jarring. I think because, one, it was a reminder of, “Oh, my community is still struggling with this and I’m about to leave.” So even if I want to help, I don’t really know how I can help because I’m about to fly all the way to Chicago for four years at least. But also it was really interesting coming to Northwestern, because I had been so used to living in a community where everyone understood that that was a really important issue. And at Northwestern, people seemed less aware even though the problem was just as prevalent.

JACKSON: In her four years at Northwestern, Zhang has noticed a general lack of empathy among students, staff and administration. Frustrated with the lack of care, Zhang decided to write a column about it for The Daily.

ZHANG: It’s just like something lacking in the atmosphere. Everyone is so zoned in on what they’re doing and what their life is about that they aren’t even just saying, “Are you OK? What can I do to help you?” to their friends.

JACKSON: For Zhang, the support systems built into Northwestern pale in comparison to those at her high school. Zhang said she felt supported as a high schooler both by her peers and teachers.

ZHANG: A big reason kind of why I’m pursuing my career as a teacher is because I was really influenced by my teachers during that time in my life, and I think that had it not been for my teachers, I would have come out of that a lot less strong and more damaged in a sense. Now I feel like that experience is a really core part of who I am and makes me a better person and makes me who I am as opposed to destroying me on the inside.

JACKSON: Is there a specific moment you shared with one of your teachers that kind of highlights the good feelings you got from some of those?

ZHANG: One of my high school English teachers my senior year, which was when the cluster happened, he was really good about kind of being transparent with us. In terms of like, “I know this is hard. And I know sitting in class probably is hard. We have this hour together. What can we do to make it better?” And so knowing that this adult, one, sympathized with us two, was able to create a space for us was really important. And he also reminded us about some things that I wouldn’t say gave me hope but made me recognize that we’re not alone in this.

JACKSON: Have you had similar experiences here at Northwestern with professors?

ZHANG: That’s an awesome question, and the sad answer is no. It’s not the same at all.

JACKSON: Zhang is a part of Northwestern’s crew team. In an accident during Zhang’s sophomore year, her teammate Mohammed Ramzan passed away. For Zhang, Ramzan’s death highlighted the weak support systems that exist on campus.

ZHANG: In the classes that I was taking at the time, I had to reach out to my professors first and say, “Hey, this happened to me yesterday. I probably can’t turn my homework in today because I’m really distraught.” And obviously, they’d be accommodating then, but the fact that I had to confront people about that was really difficult. I felt like it was hard enough just to go through it and then the fact that the University was so big and didn’t know necessarily how to communicate the right information to the right people was really hard.

JACKSON: Around the time of Ramzan’s death, Zhang found it hard to read and hear administrators’ condolences.

ZHANG: I found it really difficult to see them. They’ll go to memorial services and send emails full of regret and pretend to be really sad, but you can totally tell that the only reason they’re there is because they know they have to be there. I’m sure that it is painful for them, but they also aren’t listening to students when they propose action items, like we really need more funding for CAPS.

JACKSON: In the wake of Ramzan’s death, Zhang also saw a close friend struggle with their mental health — and struggled herself.

ZHANG: One of my good friends is in the hospital for suicidal ideation. But the fact that I had just lost my friend who was my teammate, and I was very, very close to losing another friend within the same month. It was extremely difficult to just think about like, what my life would be like without both of those people on top of the fact that I already lost one person. Looking at the situation I was in, in trying to support this friend, who’s definitely going through a lot of hard stuff, but also not feeling like I was ready to always be there. It was really eye-opening.

JACKSON: This school year, Zhang — along with fellow teammates and friends — submitted a proposal for Ramzan’s memorial. The proposal was sent months ago and hasn’t been accepted or denied. She said this highlights a lack of care on administrators’ part.

ZHANG: So we came up with a proposal and sent it to facilities, and it has been almost six months since I submitted that request. And I sent them a follow-up email three weeks ago saying like, “Hey, it’s me again. I called you in December to ask where things are. It’s April now, what’s the deal?” I’ve gotten no response. And that to me, it’s just representative of a lack of connection and care both in a logistical and an emotional way.

JACKSON: And how does that feel?

ZHANG: The fact that the students are working so hard and that the administrators don’t recognize that work is kind of demoralizing. And I think has made me wonder whether or not the University will actually ever go back in 10 years and remember that these students had passed away to begin with. Simply because they do the deeds that need to be done in the moment, like send out the letter, console the parents, talk to the media or don’t talk to the media. But once that period of time is over, they basically act like nothing happened.

JACKSON: Zhang is also uncomfortable with how quickly students move on after a student death is announced. In conversations with her peers, Zhang has to press pause and explain how suicide and death has touched her life.

ZHANG: So, we get this email. And I was with a group of my teammates, and they were like, “Oh, did you hear about this email can’t believe it happened again.” And then within 30 seconds, we transitioned onto another topic. And I was like, “Whoa, hold on a second, this is just going to be food for thought for like 30 seconds? And then we’re going to move on?” Obviously, it’s an uncomfortable topic, but I had to get up and walk around and come back and explain like, “Yeah, this is really hard for me, because I’ve gone through something like this so many times that every time it happens, it just like piles on to my emotional burdens.” I didn’t want to be in a space like that anymore, because these people just didn’t know.

JACKSON: Being a student personally affected by suicide, Zhang finds it hard to navigate situations like these.

ZHANG: I don’t really know how to get people to understand the weight of what it might mean for not just suicide. I also don’t really know how to educate people. So I’m sort of just like, frustrated with this problem that I also don’t know how to solve. So I feel very powerless.

JACKSON: You’ve talked a lot about how a lot about how other people’s’ mental health has impacted you. How has your mental health been dealing with these traumatic events in life, but also even aside from that?

ZHANG: My sophomore year, I started to personally struggle with my own eating habits. Oftentimes I would be in the dining hall with my friends, and if I was with them, I would maybe eat something that looked normal, but then feel really, really terrible afterward. And, or if I was eating alone, I would stand in front of the food for 20 minutes just trying to decide what to eat because I was reading all the calorie labels and could not decide what had the least amount of calories.

JACKSON: Struggling with disordered eating, Zhang didn’t know who to turn to, and she also didn’t think her eating habits were a big enough problem to ask for help.

ZHANG: Just the nature of not being with your parents or your support systems when you’re kind of doing these things made it even more difficult to figure out how to seek help in the right way and also recognize that what I was doing was unhealthy. Then I felt like, “Oh, I don’t have the right to kind of share my experience or tell other people that I have a problem, because is this really a problem?” So I kind of just meandered around, feeling bad about myself but not feeling like it was worth… it wasn’t bad enough. Now looking back, it’s like living with the cold for a really long time because your cold isn’t cancer. That’s not something you would do if it was physical health, but people do it with mental health all the time. And that kind of pushed me forward into a realm where I realized I did need to talk to someone.

JACKSON: Zhang credits her willingness to seek help for why she’s able to be so open about her mental health struggles.

ZHANG: A big reason why I think I’ve been able to get through all of this and am very willing to talk about it is because I understand one, when I need help and two, how to get it. At this turning point with my disordered eating and feeling depressed, I knew, “OK, I keep calling my mom, and my mom doesn’t really know what to say. And I should probably see a therapist, because my mom’s not a therapist.” I was very willing to take that step whereas some people may kind of push those thoughts away. It’s a personal strength that I really value is that I know when I can’t do it by myself. And that’s kind of why I got here.

JACKSON: Where are you now in your mental health, life journey?

ZHANG: If I hadn’t gone through the stuff that I went through, I definitely would not be as mature or capable person that I know I am today. And I obviously I still go through stuff. Now, I’m able to recognize, “OK, this is bad. What can I do to make it better?” That makes a world of difference. And also, now that I feel like I’m able to tell my story, it’s not this thing that is just a burden on me or it’s not just baggage. It’s important and useful and part of my identity. Even if it might be hard to carry sometimes, it’s a big part of what I want to do and who I am and knowing that is really good too.

JACKSON: Thank you for listening. Be sure to check out our other episode around Mental Health Month. This is Cassidy Jackson, and I’ll see you next time.
Missing Cassidy’s closing

Email: cassidyjackson2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @cassidykjackson


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