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When ducks drown: shifting paradigms of mental health

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It’s around that time of the year again – endless weeks of midterms, steadily growing alarm as the overdue assignments pile up, looming deadlines of papers and tests, not enough sleep and too many commitments.

And duck syndrome.

Duck syndrome, the term coined by Stanford University to describe the phenomena where students look put-together and happy on the outside but are struggling to stay afloat under the surface, okay, okay. We get it; duck syndrome’s been talked about for a while; most of us know what it is.

Duck syndrome and mental health are topics that have become intertwined on this campus. Whether we’re talking about our culture of overwork or obsession with perfection, or even if we’re talking about the grim realities of college suicides, duck syndrome is our way of talking about mental health on college campuses.

And I’m never quite satisfied with those conversations that happen.

When we talk about duck syndrome, we talk about it as if it’s some vast, invisible net that has tangled all of Stanford up in its clutches, and we are all common enemies against this one mental health evil, duck syndrome, and its similarly-evil henchman, stress. But apart from the reductionist appeal of that idea (which just about everyone can agree with), it’s functionally useless. Around this time last year, my mental health was the worst it’s ever been at Stanford and I never tried to get institutional help, CAPS or otherwise. Duck syndrome? Trans women of color in the U.S. were being murdered practically every week; my communities were in a state of emergency and I didn’t trust Stanford to be able to understand, let alone help me understand my emotions.  

We cannot disentangle mental health from the other experiences in our lives that so crucially inform it. The able-bodied, heterosexual cisgender white man who struggles with engineering classes experiences “stress” or “mental health” in completely different ways than does the queer woman of color involved in activism and cycling through different medications for her depression or the first-generation international college student scraping through with insufficient financial aid.

No matter how much positive intent individuals and organizations may have with regards to mental health at Stanford, positive impact won’t occur unless we do an honest job of trying to understand the myriad reasons why students struggle. We need to understand the systemic economic, social, psychological and physical inequities that affect students under the surface, and ensure that our efforts to promote students’ mental health are situated in a framework that takes it all into account: the stereotype threat, minority stress and cultural trauma; the overwork, heavy unit loads, duck syndrome.

What this framework would look like in practice is certainly more intentional than what we’ve got at present and, by association, almost certainly more uncomfortable. It would look like moving beyond our one-size-fits-all solutions of “go to CAPS” or “feel better!” towards approaches to mental health that are more human, with more healing and more respect. It would look like, for those of us embedded inside institutions, being informed and unafraid enough to become beacons of safety who students can trust to talk to about illness, family, prejudice and discrimination, suffering and sadness and loss.

Can we do that? Can we accept and welcome the vulnerability of people who truly aren’t happy and aren’t doing well? When we are the ones who are struggling, can we find people we trust enough with our vulnerability?

I think it’s about time at Stanford for a paradigm shift in the way we think about mental health – not just as physiological, situational, cultural or systemic but as all of these and more, the product of both our flawed society and despite it. We’ve already acknowledged the important truth that we cannot value our community without valuing its mental health. What remains now is following through on the promises we’ve made towards a better Stanford.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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The author's profile picture
Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!