By Sonja Hansen
Faculty responses to mental health issues, Stanford’s current lawsuit entanglement and suicide were at the center of a contentious Monday night panel discussion on mental health at the Education and Society Theme (EAST) House.
“We can’t stay on the merry go round,” panelist Donnovan Yisrael ’89 M.A. ’90 said, referring to Stanford’s fast-paced culture. “We have to fix the merry-go-round.”
Other panelists included Marissa Floro, a first-year postdoctoral fellow at Vaden Health Center in Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Adina Glickman, director of learning strategy programs. Panelists emphasized to The Daily that they do not speak on behalf of the University at large.
“We, unlike other schools, are steeped in technology in a way that my colleagues at Princeton don’t see,” said Glickman, who in 2011 founded the Stanford Resilience Project, which she said is meant to normalize failure by sharing stories of rejection through its blog. “Part of the stress is there’s not a lot of room to digest and sit and think, also because it’s a very fast quarter, and your attention is consumed at all times.”
Floro added that the amount of pressure students feel differs from other colleges at which she has worked.
“Though it’s my first year, there’s definitely a different level of expectation that folks put on themselves that they also get from other people here and from people at home,” Floro said. “There’s a really strong feeling of the need to keep up. There’s not a whole lot of time to reflect.”
Because of the fast pace, Yisrael, a senior health educator in mental health and well-being at Vaden, suggested that if anything were to change, the quarter system could be re-evaluated. Floro went on to say that CAPS wants to be more “proactive, preventive and community-based” by creating discussion spaces with licensed psychologists where students can talk about rejection and struggle. In this way, she hopes CAPS can be “six steps in front of crisis mode.”
The discussion then opened up for questions from the audience, in which students expressed their own opinions and experiences with mental health at Stanford.
One attendee explained how when presenting professors with an accommodation letter from the Office of Accessible Education that enabled her an extension on assignments, they would become hostile and question her on her medical history. The attendee said she felt uncomfortable and discouraged from using her extension. Floro responded by saying that whether a diagnosis or proof of mental illness should be required for accommodation has been a topic of conversation at CAPS.
Another attendee brought up the current lawsuit against Stanford that alleges the University’s leave of absence policies discriminate against those with mental health challenges.
“I don’t think the administration deals with extreme failure that well,” the attendee said. “I think it’s easy to say, ‘Oh yeah, we accept failure,’ but I have actual friends who are scared of talking to their [Academic Advising Directors] because of all the happenings with mental health and how the institution has reacted to that in the past. I think there are deeper, more systemic changes that need to happen, and I haven’t heard of changes from above to fix that.”
“I don’t know anything about the lawsuit,” Yisrael responded, “but I just want to comment that we struggle to help our students be safe. We just had a suicide on campus, and maybe I’m just naive, but I don’t understand why students are still in school [while depressed]. I would hope that if I was in a place where I was dealing with some serious issues that I wouldn’t also be in a program working 80 hours a week.”
While Yisrael referred to the recent death of an engineering graduate student, it is unclear what the circumstances surrounding his death are.
Floro said that she had not been hired at the time of the lawsuit and therefore has no information about it while Glickman said she is “super outside of it.”
Another attendee criticized the lack of support for students to take care of themselves.
“A lot of the onus is put on the students to take care of yourself,” an attendee said. “It’s like you’re in the desert and someone tells you ‘Oh, just drink water!’ But there’s nothing here!”
Glickman agreed that simply advising students to sleep more is ineffective.
“We’re not actually confronting the fact that we’re not making that possible,” she said. “Our faculty, our structures and our grading systems are not making that possible.”
Yisrael later disagreed with Glickman by re-emphasizing his belief in the individual.
“I’ve gotten quiet because I hear what students are saying that ‘We don’t want to hear about the role of the individual in this,’” Yisrael said. “I’m a little torn because I do believe in the power of the individual to change a culture, and we don’t want to blame the victim, but we’re all a part of this.”
Toward the conclusion of the event, Yisrael said that he wouldn’t send his daughter to an environment like Stanford.
“I don’t want my daughter to go to Stanford,” Yisrael said. “She won’t go here because I won’t let herself kill herself to do this. I want you to hear this.”
Another attendee responded to Yisrael.
“Your entire monologue right there is so radical and so different from any message that we’re getting from any other adult on this campus,” she said. “I understand that after this event I can decide to go home and go to sleep and get eight hours of sleep, but the reality is that that’s not really a choice. It is hard to make that decision when the environment and circumstances at this institution is pushing so heavily against that choice.”
Contact Sonja Hansen at smhansen ‘at’ stanford.edu.