The happy mask: Carnegie Mellon must address stress culture

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Originally published Dec. 12, 2012.

“I can't do this anymore,” my social, popular, and highly capable friend sobbed into my shoulder. It was the second week of the school year, and she'd just officially taken a semester leave of absence from Carnegie Mellon.

The stress was piling up. A bad breakup was enough, but to have to manage her course load on top of that was too much to consider. She'd considered suicide before the sudden clarity of deciding to take a semester off. I held her and told her everything would be all right, but frankly, I'd been feeling the gloom myself since arriving on campus two weeks prior. After a fantastic summer, even I had to admit I wasn't looking forward to another year.

“Maybe it's the work, maybe it's Pittsburgh,” said another friend, one year later, as he stared at his bedroom ceiling. “I try not to let it get me down, but sometimes, there's just this cloud.” Another friend confessed to me that he puts in additional study time between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m. so he can finish his homework. A fellow member in my club expressed to a group with sarcastic glee, “I haven't slept in three days to get this CS assignment in on time.”

We all laughed, but it's a joke we've heard before. And it isn't funny anymore.

In the wake of a student's recent death, I'd like to take a moment to express something that's been dawning on me slowly for years now. It's that tiny voice in the back of my head that says, upon hearing stories like those above, that it's not fair. It's not fair to see good people throw everything on the altar of Carnegie Mellon and get no acknowledgement that yes, this is hard, and yes, it's difficult to cope.

The response has been meek in return. “Well, that's just the way the school is, I guess,” people have told me. “You don't come here if you want to have a normal life, or a social life.” Many are suffering, and no one's talking about it. Why?

The last time an incident like Friday's death happened was during my first year, when Rohan Vakharia committed suicide in a Wean staircase. At the time, the university hastened to hide a poem that even new students like myself already knew was written on the side of the steps: “If you're feeling like a jerk / 'cause your project just won't work / go ahead and take the leap / then you'll finally get some sleep.” Interestingly, the university denied any knowledge of the poem beforehand, then went silent on the issue.

Then, sophomore year, I attended Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for the first time. Stress over friends and work was piling up for me, too. It was in the middle of a particularly bad bout of sobbing, while staring at a list of red errors in my debugger, that I decided to seek help.

“Is this a critical emergency?” I was asked on the phone.

“No,” I said, honestly. I was informed that the first available appointment was in two and a half weeks. Over half a month, and that was for the initial diagnosis appointment, where no care would be provided. For that, I would end up waiting another week.

Sitting in the overcrowded lobby, watching the morose faces of those around me — most of them with their noses buried in People magazine to avoid eye contact — I saw students come and go whom I knew. Many of whom I'd never suspected could have ever had “problems.” When I'd talked to them in my daily life, all of them seemed happy.

All of them joked about their coursework. “Three papers this week!” one of the girls had lamented once when I'd talked to her at the Forbes crosswalk. Then she'd rolled her eyes and smiled at me, with a knowing look that said, We sure signed up for this, didn't we?

In the CAPS lobby, she looked different. Her face was emotionless and ashen. I'd worked with this girl in an organization here on campus for weeks in a row. I never knew she was struggling. I doubt she knew I was, either. Maybe if we'd both known, we could have reached out to each other. As I tried to get her to meet my eyes and she looked at the floor, I realized something: She's scared. I'm scared, too.

Everyone always tells me I seem capable. I've got a high-paying job lined up; I've helped run campus organizations; I mentor other students; I'm outgoing and upbeat. The truth is that I've had my fair share of breakdowns as a student here. I suspect others are the same way. I'm speaking out about it now, but others will not.

Maybe it's that every time we brag to each other about our workload, we're covering up our fear with that same bravado. On this campus, it's normal to ignore your stress and pretend like you're doing fine. Because in high school, we were fine. We were at the top of our classes with minimal effort, and that mentality hasn't changed. The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are. Unit count translates into intelligence.

When I see people discuss their insane workloads, they're met with impressed comments, not horrified shock — rarely an honest, “Are you doing okay?” Maybe it's that we're convincing ourselves, Hey, everyone's like this, and they all just deal with it, right? No one's depressed, right? So I can't be either. I can't speak for everyone, but I know that, at some point, every one of my close friends has expressed that they are depressed in some way — and that is, in almost all cases, directly tied to their work at Carnegie Mellon.

The terrifying thing is that emotional and mental suffering doesn't show on the skin. It's often the happiest students, the ones who chuckle at their workload, who feel that pain most keenly. And it's those students who need help. Clearly not all of them are getting it or feel comfortable seeking it.

A more serious question, then, is why is the university ignoring the elephant in the room? A look at Carnegie Mellon's available mental health services, outside of CAPS itself (which has appeared chronically overcrowded over the two years I've attended, despite the wonderful and well-trained staff) reveals a pitifully small offering.

A single link to an external self-assessment site seems to offer no actual self-assessment options, leading me to wonder if anyone has checked the link in years. Another external site offers a diagnostic quiz, but this appears to have no direct link back to the university. No one could even be bothered, apparently, to write up an FAQ on the CAPS process. And the dean of Student Affairs' recent email regarding a student death offers no mention of what options a student facing a similar emotional crisis can reach out to — only, as usual, “Call CAPS.”

In fact, I get frequent reminders to fill out course evaluations, eat cake for Andrew Carnegie's birthday, and host prospective students, but I don't think I've ever received an email from the university reminding me to look after my own well-being. We spend a semester in a required first-year course that teaches us about library use and learning strategies, but not how to notice when a friend's in need of help, or what to do when someone reports feeling depressed.

This is absent at a school consistently ranked among the most stressful in the nation. Why is the administration silent on this? Why the refusal to acknowledge the problem? Why the lack of funding thrown at this issue? Is it because we're scared to admit the problem exists?

I talked to my friend — a former resident assistant and frequent participant in Student Life, who wished to remain anonymous — while writing this article. "We refer students to CAPS when they approach us with issues, but often it's pretty clear they won't go," my friend said. "It's just something we say a lot. It takes incredible effort to reach out and make that effort to get help. Even I don't feel comfortable opening up like that."

In fact, there is no central university-supported resource for a student who has reservations about attending CAPS. Therapy has an enormous stigma attached to it, and putting the total burden of seeking help on a troubled student — with a three-week delay in treatment, no less — is ludicrous.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently launched an initiative called MIT Together, which seeks to address this same problem. The initiative provides information on topics such as “How to ask for help,” and it offers a connection service for peer-to-peer counseling for those uncomfortable with clinical treatment. The initiative also provides individualized advice and resources for graduate and undergraduate students.

It would be a wonderful step in the right direction to see Carnegie Mellon follow a similar model. One size does not fit all, especially with a spectrum like stress.

It's time we stopped telling jokes and started admitting to ourselves that we — and the administration — have a problem. I don't want to embrace a university where stress is shrugged away and emotional problems are swept under the rug. I want to call myself an alumna of a place that works at every turn to combat the stressful environment it creates. That future is not too far away. I just hope we can get there.