By Samantha Aaronson and Daniel Robinson
Taylor Ladd of Harvard University
While a college campus is intended to be a safe haven for students to congregate and flourish during their studies, it is often a very stressful environment that can trigger mental health issues. Fortunately some people, such as Taylor Ladd, are taking action to address this problem.
Last year, Taylor Ladd, a Harvard student, began a Facebook Page called, “How Was Your Day Harvard,” following a student suicide on campus. This page was then used as an outlet for the entire student body to write stories, anecdotes, and opinions dealing with their own personal mental health as a means of destigmatizing the issue.
Like many others, Ladd had faced her own battles with mental health, specifically in her Freshman year of college. She described how she struggled greatly to feel confident when arriving on campus. “The super competitive atmosphere around me caused me to view my classmates as seemingly perfect individuals. It felt like there must be something wrong with me.”
The American Psychological Association noted that this strive for perfection is fairly common amongst college students today, particularly at highly competitive universities. Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory supports this contention. The theory explains, “Individuals often compare their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others… Most of us have the social skills and impulse control to keep our envy and social comparisons quiet, but our true feelings may come out in subtle ways.”
At highly competitive universities, this assessment can often become toxic. Frequently, students develop a false inferiority complex when comparing themselves to their peers. According to Active Minds, there are many significant consequences that can result from repressing these feels of inadequacy, typically surfacing in the form of anxiety and depression. Rahdu et al. explains that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been proven to help students combat this false belief-set.
According to Hunt and Eisenberg, an increasing number of college students arrive to campus meeting the diagnostic criteria for a mental-health-related issue each year. Many mental health professionals believe that universities often promote this culture of perfectionism long before students arrive on campus. In particular, they note that the college application process sets a terrible precedent for students arriving on campus.
New York Times opinion author, Frank Bruni, argued that the college application is often described as an extreme source of stress, reinforcing this demand for perfectionism. He voiced that high school students are often encouraged to brag about their accomplishments, both inside and outside the classroom. Sadly, by the time they get to campus, students have perfected this curated, airbrushed narrative of who they are as a person.
Once arriving on campus, the intensity and pressure of college often has the ability to trigger underlying mental health issues. Students are known to push themselves to the limit with their workload, spend countless hours in the library, while maintaining a calm and collected facade. Ladd explains that on Harvard’s campus, this has proven to be very dangerous.
While most people believe that mental illness is purely a chemical imbalance, the field of psychology describes that environmental factors play a huge role in potentiating underlying conditions (particularly to those with a family history of mental illness). Last month, author Sarah Schuster published a piece describing the plight of high functioning, yet anxiety ridden individuals.
Schuster explains that anxiety must be treated seriously, regardless of how generative the person is. “…It’s not a noble way to suffer. It’s not a better way to be anxious. Just because you’re functioning doesn’t always mean you’re happy. And just because you’re functioning doesn’t mean you shouldn’t slow down, breathe and take one damn second to be happy the way things are.”
Ladd conveyed a similar message, cautioning people from making the presumption that a person is happy, simply because they are productive. She explained that this misconception created additional hurdles that often detered students from getting help. “People see our achievement first and our happiness second. They do not understand how one can get accepted to Harvard, yet lack the ability to take care of themselves.”
Technology has been cited as one of the potential sources for the rise in mental health related issues on college campuses. Social psychologists often explain the power that social networking has in the ability to paradoxically connect and isolate people at the same time. Ladd expressed, “On the one hand, social media is a stage in which people attempt to portray curated, perfect versions of their lives. On the other, it has the ability to bring people together in times of need and teach you that nobody is alone in their struggle.” She noted that ‘How Was Your Day Harvard’ served as a great example of this.
Last year, the “How Was Your Day Harvard” maintained a strong presence on campus during the Fall, 2015 semester. It was praised by students as being both inclusive and cathartic. Ladd reflected,“People from all different social groups and years posted on the page, most using their Facebook profiles but some anonymously. I’d like to think that the posts reached almost every corner of campus – in just a few days, the page amassed over 1,000 likes! I definitely think the posts helped people to see just how common it is to struggle with mental health, and helped facilitate conversation in a time where the campus desperately needed it.”
Storytelling is an essential part of recovery. It offers people a sense of humility, solidifying the message that nobody is perfect, particularly at a place like Harvard University.
Ladd illustrated how seeing others’ struggle finally taught her the danger in comparing her self worth to the perceived accomplishments of others. “It is simply not reality,” Ladd concluded. “Everyone has their own struggles; it is important to keep that in perspective.”
Today, Ladd encourages students struggling with mental illness to put their voice out there. “Storytelling isn’t the cure to mental illness, however, it does make the road to recovery a lot less lonely.”