Speak your Mind: First-years discuss their views on mental health TND during Wildcat Welcome

Haley Fuller and Sammi Boas

Sammi Boas: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas,

Haley Fuller: And I’m Haley Fuller. Welcome to “Speak your Mind” a new podcast dedicated to discussing mental health on Northwestern’s campus. Episodes will come out every other week and will be focused on different issues relating to mental health and self-care. Our goal is to facilitate a conversation about mental health that goes in depth about what students are really experiencing and try to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health.

Sammi Boas: Just to give you a brief heads up, this episode contains material that may be triggering to some listeners, particularly surrounding experiences with mental illness. While we’d love to have you listen, put your own mental health and wellbeing first.

Haley Fuller: A hot topic of conversation, particularly during Wildcat Welcome was the True Northwestern Dialogue, or TND, about mental health and wellbeing. According to returning students and their Peer Advisers, the format had been changed from previous years from a part-presentation/part-play hybrid to a PowerPoint presentation. Some students found it controversial because a lot of complex topics, such as symptoms of mental illnesses, weren’t mentioned, and sleep and meditation were given as universal solutions to dealing with stress. While important, they aren’t feasible solutions for everyone, particularly for people who do have mental illnesses. We spoke to freshmen John McDermott and Gretchen Faliszek to hear what they thought about the controversial TND.

John McDermott: I’m John McDermott, I’m an 18-year-old freshman majoring in Religious Studies.

Gretchen Faliszek: I’m Gretchen Faliszek. I’m Class of 2023 and I’m majoring in statistics.

Sammi Boas: What were your specific thoughts regarding that mental health TND?

John McDermott: For a lot of people, it just felt like another talk about mental health, very standard to what people have heard in the past, and I think sensitized to an extent that people were a bit uncomfortable with. On the flipside, the small group conversations went well for a lot of people, and I think that at the very least, people appreciated having the space to get more into the nitty-gritty, into the personal stuff, and being able to talk about more personal issues that might’ve been overlooked in the presentation. Of course it is a presentation and there are things they’re going to miss, that’s a given but I still think it could’ve been said better.

Gretchen Faliszek: It’s good that the school is trying to talk about mental health, but I think they went about it in the wrong way. I feel like the TND wasn’t made for people with actual mental illness. I feel like it was made for people who just get casual test anxiety. I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and panic disorder and I was officially diagnosed [in] I think 8th grade. I’ve had my fair share of self-harm and attempts and all that stuff and I feel like the mental health TND didn’t really address any of those things or the more serious stuff. It was just made for “Here’s what to do if you’re stressed about a test” like “wear different socks and you’ll feel fine.” I don’t want to say they’re not real issues because they are but he didn’t address the actual elephant in the room. He didn’t really address suicide. I feel like it was made for people who don’t have mental illness.

Haley Fuller: Part of the presentation included tips about how to feel better in the moment when you’re feeling nervous, including exercise, getting enough sleep, and changing into a different pair of socks. However, as Gretchen said, some of the ways were simpler than the way mental illness actually works.

Sammi Boas: During my session, there was actually someone who stood up and said ‘I don’t really agree with how you’re presenting this.’ Were there any specific moments of people kind of standing up and speaking what they believed?

John McDermott: Yeah, I was in Friday afternoon, evening, so that was yours. We had one guy stand up and basically directly say, “This needs to be more relatable to our generation or the class, and more personalized almost.

Sammi Boas: Did you agree with those sentiments?

John McDermott: Yeah, I think to an extent. It is easy to say that mental health is something that is important to take care of, but I think it’s a lot harder to kind of believe that and follow that in practice. Future TNDs should have more of an emphasis and there should be more of a focus on, I want to say, teaching people how to ask for help. Normalizing it almost.

Gretchen Faliszek: People always want to try to make it funny and not awkward. Just talk about it. You don’t need all these stupid jokes, you don’t need all these little segways. I wish they would’ve just talked about the issues and just went directly into it rather than all the little jokes and tidbits and stuff.

Haley Fuller: One example of the presentation’s tone was when the presenter talked about his plant. Although intended to be a metaphor relating to growth, the use of plant puns such as “the plant be-leafs in you” and “he is rooting for you” distracted from the serious topic at hand.

Sammi Boas: So how do you think they approached mental health then?

John McDermott: It’s good to say, “These are the resources that are available.” I’m glad they did that, I’m glad that they brought up all the nitty-gritty details about how to get help. I think there are some ways that it could’ve been more direct to an incoming class of freshmen who in general hasn’t really had a meaningful connection with authority on this issue… I think that really where the barrier comes in is that the presentation was given with the assumption that people feel ready to ask for help and have come to a point personally where they can, and I think for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t had experience with it before, that is a lot more difficult than it was said to be. The one thing that could’ve made it better was really addressing how hard it can be for people to ask for help and maybe coming up with some way to bring that up and make it easier for people.

Haley Fuller: According to the American Psychological Association, there has been an upward trend in mental illness and psychological problems since the 1990s. In the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, schools that responded reported 52% of their clients experiencing “Severe psychological problems,” an 8% increase from the previous year. The 2016 student survey by the American College Health Association said that over 30% of students reported feeling so depressed it was hard to function in the past 12 months, and about 50% of respondents said that things were hopeless. With these numbers, education and conversations surrounding mental health are more relevant than ever, so we asked John and Gretchen why they think conversation is crucial.

Sammi Boas: At an institution like Northwestern where there is a lot of pressure to succeed and do everything, why do you think inclusive conversation about mental health is so important?

Gretchen Faliszek: I think it’s good that the school is trying to talk about mental health because a lot of schools will just push it under the rug, especially a lot of other private schools. They’ll just push it under the rug, pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s important because I feel like this is what a lot of people at Northwestern grew up with. with a pressure to succeed. No one talks about it, but we are all a mess. There’s just so much anxiety. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have it.What I like about the TND is that we had it in the first place, so it’s just important to talk about the issues.

John McDermott: I think that the conversations in the small groups we had did offer a number of thoughts and ideas that I think can be useful throughout Northwestern as a whole. Bouncing around some different thoughts on how to be smart about mental and physical health and hearing my PA’s experiences and how he’s encountered mental health and what he’s done to overcome his own challenges was helpful. I will certainly take those, the vulnerability that we shared and the themes, topics and strategies, as kind of a guidance to help me make sure that I’m being reasonable in what I do and that I’m not overdoing myself or overdoing the work I’m trying to achieve.

Gretchen Faliszek: It’s really important to just try to put your mental health first. I had a day where I’m like “I’m exhausted. I can’t do this,” especially during Wildcat Welcome. I had a day where I messaged my PA and I’m like “I’m going to have to skip out on 3 things because I’m so mentally exhausted from this” and he was like “yeah, that’s totally fine.” I think it’s just important to know yourself and know your own personal limits and be able to take the time off when you need it. If you break your leg, you don’t start walking on it immediately. If you’re mentally exhausted or broken or anxious or whatever you don’t just keep going. You need to take a nap, do whatever you need to do. It’s important to take that time for yourself.

John McDermott: We did talk about reserving time to unplug and to step back and to just be and exist without worrying about work or school or activities. We also touched on a number of strategies that could be more useful during the day or during class or a test, we went over like square breathing or some other breathing techniques that might be useful. And I think in general, the vulnerability that we shared also just created an atmosphere, a welcoming atmosphere that I hope will make people more likely to address issues, whether personally or with the group or with an adult or some other group on campus. So hopefully other people as well can find those spaces where they can start to be vulnerable and take their walls down.

Haley Fuller: The Daily Northwestern submitted a media request to CAPS for comment. They did not respond by the time we produced this episode.

Haley Fuller: To close things out, we went around campus and asked people “How are you doing?” Here’s what sophomores Kyra Steck, Tom Quinn, Jenna Piehl and first-years Nicole Tank and Yuyan Zhang had to say.

Kyra Steck: Good ….

Tom Quinn: Excited ….

Jenna Piehl: Happy

Nicole Tank: Today I’m doing really well. I’m in a great mood, but I’m a little tired because I stayed up super late last night working on an application for a club I wanted to join.

Yuyan Zhang: I’m really tired today because I fell asleep at like 5 o’clock this morning because I don’t know how to write in German. I was staring at it for five hours and I just did not have words.

Sammi Boas: That’s all we have today for “Speak your Mind.” I’m Sammi Boas,

Haley Fuller: And I’m Haley Fuller. Thanks for listening!