Op-Ed: On mental health at Stanford

I recently learned of the tragic death of Samantha Wopat ‘14. Shocked by the death of a current student, I turned to Google and The Stanford Daily to learn more about Samantha. I was devastated to find out that she died one week after attempting suicide. I was also disheartened to discover that many in the Stanford community feel that the University does not effectively communicate about or address mental illness on campus.

During my senior year at Stanford (2003-04), I was diagnosed with depression. I struggled to stay interested in anything but sleeping and spent hours crying without knowing why. Added to the sense of hopelessness were feelings of shame and embarrassment — how could I possibly feel sad on the Farm? Everyone else around me (I thought) was accomplished and happy, reveling in the California sunshine and the dynamic academic environment. What was wrong with me?

In April of that year, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily about an insensitive ad the paper ran that referenced mental illness. Writing the letter was cathartic and empowering, but I was nervous about what the reaction would be from people I knew. However, I only remember one person even mentioning the letter to me, looking incredibly embarrassed as he did so.

I’m sad to learn that eight years later, Stanford is still struggling to get this right.

Stanford is an amazing place. I would not trade my four years there for anything. But entering freshmen, all high achievers in some way, can find it hard to adjust when they arrive on campus and discover that at Stanford, they are ordinary. Some might read this and think I am a snob, or somehow ungrateful, or completely lacking in perspective. I thought all of those things about myself as I struggled to rediscover my sense of self-worth in a university community where I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most accomplished people on the planet. I knew I was so lucky to be at Stanford. I knew I was surrounded by amazing people. I knew I should be happy. And that kind of pressure contributed significantly to my depression.

Everyone has heard the cliché about Stanford students and the duck syndrome. I’ve heard countless students and alumni (myself included) describe it with pride. But it perpetuates the expectation that if you aren’t happy, you are supposed to figure out how to fake it. Keep up the image of the brilliant but relaxed Stanford student. The tragedy of Samantha Wopat’s death demonstrates how truly damaging this expectation can be. Struggling — to be happy, to fit in, to find your niche, to discover your passion — is not failure and should not be something students feel pressured to hide.

I’ll close the same way I closed my letter eight years ago: if you are reading this and are struggling with depression, please get help. I promise — things really can and will get better.

Sarah Allen Cassanego ‘04

About Op Ed

  • amom

    I am a parent of a current student athlete and was very upset by Samantha Wopats passing and was disenchanted by what I can do as a parent to help my child during times of stress and possible depression. I feel that I am not alone and I do think the athletic/student community needs to address this issue and really put a plan together to prevent any more suicides. I am planning a a more diligent parent role this this next year to help my child with any issues of depression. I do not want to go through what I can only imagine the Wopat family is still going through.

  • james

    I was also deeply saddened by Sam’s passing. This was a very insightful article about one person’s struggles but everyone’s experiences and mindset have a unique quality to them. And, of course there is no way to know someone’s innermost thoughts. From what I heard Wopat’s situation probably had nothing to do with being surrounded by accomplished students. It could have just as likely happened if she was going to community college or working at a mall. I suppose my only real point here is that medical science has a long way to go in sorting out who is temporarily depressed (we all are at some point in life) and who will take a step that can’t be reversed.

  • pol_incorrect

    It’s very sad indeed. The problem is that there is not an easy answer to the problem. The Stanford crowd is a very proud one :D. And I think that sending people to the psychiatric establishment to look for answers will only make things worse, not better. Psychiatry is not a science, but rather a belief system ( http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7399362n ). There is even the case of the Stanford student that committed suicide under Prozac http://archive.stanforddaily.com/?p=1030095 . And there is the fact that the former Chair of the Psychiatry Department is a crook http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/letters/public-health/ph-iis-20101223.html . From that point of view, probably the better suggestion is to recognize the need of having a spiritual life (pick the religion, life stance of your choice) in addition an academic one. Stanford students sometimes focus too much on the material things.

  • Profed

    There are extremely bright, motivated students at many colleges and universities. What sets Stanford apart is its location nestled in Silicon Valley with a welcomed removal of barriers between the university and Silicon Valley corporate culture. SV is a culture of excess which adults do not always navigate successfully. Thrusting 18-22 year olds into such a competitive winner takes all culture is fraught with risk. Though corporatizing the culture at Stanford allows faculty and students to focus on start-ups and Hennessy to exponentially increase his 600K+ salary serving on SV boards, the needs for affiliation and self-discovery for undergraduates are thwarted. Stanford may need to balance the economic and career motivations of tech faculty with the, social, emotional and intellectual needs of its undergraduates.

  • Vridhi Tuli

    It is very sad to hear of Samantha. The farm has great resources for all nationalities and the question that needs to be addressed is how students, with such high demands of academics can balance their personal well-being with the studies. Students generally have great aptitudes, both academically and in extra-curricular activities and Stanford has many resources which need to be discussed with students when they are at college so that the Stanford community can interact proactively with the students. (’09 Stanford Alum)