A few days ago I sat down for coffee with a person who was feeling pretty dejected. She described how school was tough, things were getting bad back home and there was no one to turn to on campus. But she wanted to put on a facade of easiness so as not to attract attention. She was describing what a lot of us call the stereotypical “Stanford duck” – a person fine on the surface but paddling furiously beneath the surface to stay afloat.
When I originally sat down to write this article I was going to criticize the idea of Stanford duck syndrome. After all, here at Stanford we have fantastic support networks ranging from psychologists to advisors to community centers. The onus was in some sense on her to seek out these highly visible resources. I thought that, unless you have a serious mental illness, there’s no reason to be sad, because there are so many places on campus geared towards helping people.
I still feel that, in a way, privilege precludes sadness. There are times when you need to haul yourself up out of your moods and move on with life. Shit happens to everyone. We’re all busy, we all make mistakes and we all have high expectations that aren’t always met. You go drink with friends or eat a cookie – whatever it takes to cope. Ultimately, you have to own your emotions and realize that you can’t control the situation, you can only control your reaction. What made me most angry is that a lot of times our negativity isn’t validated, it’s just flawed thinking. It’s an overused term often applied to people who need to harden up.
I stand by much of this. There are few things I respect more than hard work and self-sufficiency. Those are the solutions for most of us. Most of us get back to equilibrium. Most, but not all.
I understand as well as anyone that depression is a serious, crippling issue for people our age. Statistically speaking, something like one-fifth of us will go through a major depressive episode at some point in our lives, and it tends to happen in a person’s early twenties.
Therefore, I resent the term duck syndrome, but I don’t reject it. My biggest qualm is that we use it without the utmost solemnity. We lump together all the problems we have and treat them equally in conversation. In reality, the difference between depression and sadness is a gaping gulf. Yet, we don’t make those distinctions. We need to be able to distinguish between the two in everyday talk. Only then can we enhance our dialogue and recognize people who are really need help.
Changing how we think about mental illness is one step in solving the problem. That’s why I work at the Bridge and speak for Stanford Peace of Mind. It’s not always fun to staff the counseling center on Friday nights when I could be drinking. It’s also not fun speaking to random strangers about depression. But it’s important for us to move our talk beyond the simplicity of duck syndrome and address the fact that there are depressed, downtrodden, suffering and, yes, suicidal people on campus who need help.
I’m not saying we all need to rush to join the mental health groups on campus, although you should feel free to. But we should all take seriously the question, “How are you?” If you take the time to listen, you may be surprised at a person’s answer. And your own.
Share your thoughts about Duck Syndrome with Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.