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Rankings, accolades and mental health

Over the summer, Newsweek released its rankings of the happiest schools in the country. I became aware of Stanford’s first place finish because many of my friends started posting links to the article on Facebook with pride, racking up likes and comments complimenting Stanford as the clear winner, an obvious choice. For a second, I felt the pride, too – happy that we finally had something to show for the Bridge staff’s late night fliering trips to Wilbur, for CAPS, for SPOM, for the Resilience Project spearheaded by the UAR – but my pride quickly turned to frustration.

I should note here that this isn’t one of those columns where I’m going to eventually confess my own mental health struggle once I feel comfortable enough with my readers. I am, in fact, very happy at Stanford and understand why we would be named the happiest school in the country. However, reading this article and similar “positive” publicity makes me think of all the people who don’t identify with this statistic, rather than making me think about how accurately these numbers actually do portray my Stanford experience. These may be the people that make up the supposed three percent (where are these statistics coming from, anyway?) who say they wouldn’t choose Stanford again, or maybe they are the people that just wouldn’t be happy with whatever choice they had made, but in reality the people who don’t identify with this accolade far outnumber that three percent.

Reading such a proclamation makes me think of the souls that I have come across in my work at the Bridge and in my work with mental health education. For the numerous Stanford students who report feeling depressed, the additional burden of not even being able to feel happy while attending the “happiest” school in the country seems to contradict Newsweek’s motives of recognizing progressive schools with happy students. In the future, I’d recommend a more enlightened approach – a showcase of great programs such as iThrive or Stanford Peace of Mind, rather than a bold, generalized statement that leaves many feeling like misfits.

Let me take this moment to say that I do not want to come across as too negative about the state of mental health on campus. We are indebted to the administration, staff, professors, CAPS counselors and fellow students who work tirelessly to invent new programs and initiatives that benefit students’ well-being. I am so grateful to go to a school where we not only get free counseling sessions each week of the quarter (more of this to come in a future article, but visit vaden.stanford.edu to find out more in the meantime), but where we have an entire sector of student health services devoted not just to our “surviving” but to our thriving; where freshmen dorms are staffed by not only RAs but also PHEs with special training to care for students’ health and mental needs. It is not the intention of any one of these columns to point a finger at the administration for not doing enough, to blame our staff for poor execution or to find fault with the system. My intention is to draw awareness to the stigma associated with seeking help on campus and to see how we can best bridge the gap between the services available to Stanford students and the students who actually need them.

Another reason I cringe when I see statements like Newsweek’s is because it reminds me of a key principle of developmental psychology, which teaches parents and educators to compliment a child on their efforts rather than their innate abilities or talents. Following this theory, if a child does well on a math test, she should be lauded for her hard work and valiant studying efforts but never her smarts or great math skills. The logic, as you may have guessed, is that kids who are rewarded for innate talents will stop working hard and begin relying on their inborn abilities, whereas kids who believe that hard work leads to success will consistently put effort into their work – or so we hope.

Such is the case with these so-called “happiest school” rankings.  Rather than putting Stanford on a pedestal as the happiest school and setting it apart from the others, these distinctions would best serve mental health efforts at schools around the country if they were to praise our new programs, campaigns and goals rather than suggest with the article’s photo that happiness comes from our sunshine and nicely groomed lawns.

Emily would love to hear from you at [email protected]

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Emily Cohodes

Emily Cohodes

Emily Cohodes is a senior majoring in Psychology. She has been a peer counselor at the Bridge for the past three years and now serves as the course coordinator for the training courses. A lover of all animals, Emily has been a vegetarian since age 3 and is very interested in food production and sustainable food systems. In her free time, she can be found riding horses, cooking meatless delicacies, reminiscing about her time abroad in Italy, and hiking. She is always looking for ways to improve campus mental health culture and would love your feedback.