A few days later, I was approached by Susie Brubaker-Cole, the Vice Provost for Student Affairs. She was effusive with her praise and gushed about the many, many frosh who found my speech so relatable. I just nodded along politely and smiled, accepting the compliment I’m sure she intended to convey.
But the problem was that I wasn’t at all pleased that people liked my speech because they thought it was relatable, or that it spoke to them, or that it reminded them of their experiences or however else one would phrase it. In a perfect world, I would much prefer that nobody find my narrative relatable. The experiences I went through were, to put it mildly, deeply unpleasant, and if given the choice, I’d rather have no one resonate with that unpleasantness. But Vice Provost Brubaker-Cole was right. Standing up there on that stage, I could see with my very own eyes how many people seemed to be identifying with my story.
And it was devastating.
Mental illness shouldn’t be as common as the common cold. This isn’t normal, and we shouldn’t continue to normalize it. At some point, we need to come to the recognition that there is something deeply wrong at this campus and with the system that creates and sustains it. There is something wrong when stress and overwork become such a norm that people have trouble keeping commitments and meetings, that we feel compelled to give the phenomenon a name: duck syndrome. There is something wrong when the imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy are so prevalent that frosh have to be reassured that their admission wasn’t a mistake.
And the problem isn’t confined to Stanford — as much as we’d like to blame it on our academic culture, or the mechanics of the 10-week quarter or even some intrinsic quality of being a Stanford student. Studies show that as many as one in five Americans already experience depression during adolescence, yet the kind of response that we would expect to be forthcoming in an epidemic of such scale seems to be neither expected nor forthcoming.
In this regard, the Stanford administration is arguably complicit in the continuation of this crisis, especially given its less-than-stellar record in handling mental illness among students. However, these issues are also far more systemic, and an effective response to the problem would go beyond the role of the University.
I spoke at Faces because I believe in having open and honest conversations around mental health — and a big part of why these conversations are beneficial is that it allows for those who do suffer to see that they are not alone. I am happy if I was able to do that for people. But conversations can only be the first step. We could continue supporting the courage of individuals who can step forward and share their narratives in the hopes that it could empower others who hear them. But no matter how powerful, heartwarming or impactful these stories can be, they will only serve to highlight the alarmingly large number of folks who relate to them.
What Stanford really needs is a conversation about the causes. Why is it that so many people in our society are being affected by mental health issues? Why is suffering normalized? How are our institutional structures contributing to suffering, and what can be done to make them better?
These are questions I do not have answers to. At the end of the day, I have only my story to share. But I hope somehow, by doing that, we could one day be closer to those answers.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.