Why are such happy students so unhappy?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

How happy are Stanford students? It is a tough question to answer, masked by the compulsion of students here to appear happier than they actually are. I never really thought that mental health was a problem before, but then again, I had never asked any of my friends and fellow students what they thought about it.

As I talk to more students though, I realize that mental health is something that affects all of us, even from people I least expected. Whether academic or relationship stress, the trials and tribulations of a Stanford education do not seem to miss many members of the student body. Nonetheless, the discussion of these problems is absent, save for the handful of student groups on campus that work to solve these problems.

Just why are so many Stanford students unhappy? The first thing that came to my mind was intensity. We are surrounded by the most intense people in the world, and there are few outlets for release. Leaving for the city is difficult, and Palo Alto is certainly not a bastion of tranquility.

Unfortunately, our culture here glorifies the bravado of students, and rarely offers a peek into their weaknesses. We do not admit when we are stressed out, even when the signs are clearly visible (hint: if you see a vein popping, it probably is pretty bad). We all have weaknesses and times when we are physically and mentally stressed beyond a level healthy for young adults. Yet, we often refuse to recognize these signs.

I believe that a large part of that failure is a lack of a strong community of support. We are not comfortable talking outside a small circle regarding our personal travails, nor are we in many cases willing to listen. Part of the problem may be the housing system, which encourages social fragmentation. Another part comes from a culture of rugged individualism that is the hallmark of this region.

However, this culture of support is built into the freshman experience, which is why I think that freshman, who probably have the most stress due to the adjustment process, actually have less mental stress than upperclassmen. As that safety net disappears, we see the first cracks form during sophomore year, when friends have been scattered across campus and there are not events scheduled by staff to release stress.

Unfortunately, I think a large part of the stress is placed on students by themselves; in my opinion, this is the largest cause of mental stress here at Stanford. We set the highest possible bars for ourselves, and we are not willing to move the bar to match our real performance. Having goals is one thing, but having unrealistic ones which are repeatedly missed can prove to be deeply stressing. The need for someone external is crucial in releasing stress, which is why a community of support is so vital.

Even so, I think that there are also structural issues that cause mental stress, ones such a community will not be able to solve. The fast pace of the quarter system forces students to hurry from class to class, problem set to problem set in order to finish everything on time, never allowing for down moments necessary for the human body to recharge.

With all of these different sources of stressors, what are we to do in order to make our undergraduate experience less stressful? First, I recognize that meaningfulness and stress are functions of time - the less time devoted to an action, the less meaningful and more stressful it becomes. We can start by paring back the units we take (maybe by only 1 or 2) and cutting down on the hours devoted to multiple student groups. We need to focus on getting meaning out of every experience here (it is indeed about quality, not quantity).

Next, identify the signs that your friends and neighbors are stressed. It might be a certain shirt that is worn, extra oily hair, or a bulging vein, and then take actions to reduce the stress of that person. Have lunch with them, offer to help and try to be humorous (I tend to fail on this one). None of us will admit to the stress, but each of us can create a community of caring without anyone admitting to anything egregious.

Finally, engage on the mental health issues. There are plenty of student groups on campus that work on this issue, and there are many ways to get involved. The point of our time here at Stanford, and indeed of our lives, is to see our dreams become reality and to love every moment of the journey. We can all help create an environment where that can be reality.