This past summer, right around the pandemic’s six-month mark, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their annual young adult mental health report. Of the 5,470 participants, a record-high 40.9 percent reported struggling with depression or anxiety, a statistic evidently not jarring enough to push Bowdoin to hire an appropriate number of counselors and psychiatrists. The Center also reported a 10.7 percent rate among young adults of having seriously considered suicide within the month the study was conducted; this is a considerable jump from the 4.3 percent rate reported the year prior and apparently still not compelling enough for Bowdoin to consider remodeling Counseling Services.
I have long found it absurd that suicide risk reduction on campus takes the form of infographics, thoughtful texts and friends checking in on friends. Equally confined to interpersonal interactions are conversations surrounding mental illness on a general level, which is both more approachable and epitomizes the issue without pushing all things “mental illness” to the back burner for students to handle. It is a broad-scope term, an appropriate descriptor both for someone who struggles with anxiety attacks and someone who struggles with suicidal tendencies, though one is much more manageable than the other. As such, students struggling with the latter are not able to properly articulate the severity of their illness when they find themselves in an emergency situation—there is no sliding scale of urgency, no sufficient confessional for those who are refused help from the backlogged counseling center.
When you have lost someone you love to suicide, someone who was discharged from the hospital mere days before succumbing to their illness, it becomes impossible to ignore someone else who is drowning unattended in their dorm room. You also become, in my experience, acutely aware of the ineffectiveness of facilities that attempt to streamline the treatment process (see: hospitals discharging patients after the cursory questionnaires and filled prescriptions, and Bowdoin’s counselors being forced to choose which students to pay attention to and how often). Finally, and most disturbingly, you come to understand how f*cked up it is that a case of suicide is consistently the wake-up call for universities, that it is not their students’ cries for help but rather the limelight—the newfound liability—that brings about change, that someone at Bowdoin might have to lose their life in order to catalyze a couple new hires in the office that (alongside the vaccination initiative) singlehandedly mitigates the fatality of existing on Bowdoin’s campus.
The solution to the mental health crisis isn’t as cut and dry as simply willing life to get happier and offering limited, biweekly counseling sessions. The “just get through it” mentality is only effective for those who plan on getting through it; the constant reminders to “stick it out, it’s almost over!” only apply to those for whom the effects of the pandemic are almost over. I am inclined to believe that the administration, many of whom are probably struggling alongside students, know as much. But to admit that they understand how dire the crisis is would be to admit that more than six counselors and psychiatrists are needed to help the approximate 40.9 percent of their 1,782-student population in need of counseling services. And that just isn’t an issue they’re concerned with tackling while there aren’t any eyes on them.
I hate to think of my friends who have called the suicide hotline because their counselors dismissed them while in pursuit of “more serious cases,” or of my friends who have called the suicide hotline because Bowdoin never responded to their request at all. I hate to think of the students alone in their immense pain, frantically navigating themselves through the Bowdoin counseling website’s “self-help” page.
I stopped seeing my psychiatrist five years ago so that she couldn’t convince me not to go cold turkey on my Prozac; I haven’t returned to either since. When asked why I stopped going, I cite jokingly that I am “too corked up” for the sessions to be worthwhile—which, if put in less blasé terms, would kind of be the truth. I am afraid of emerging from my willful ignorance, of confiding in a professional and being forced to reckon with matters that may be more pressing than I realize. For many of us, that first intake form is a big, petrifying step toward admitting that we are ready to stop ignoring the problem. After confiding in my roommate the other month that I was feeling worse than I had been in a while, she took the initiative of filling out a counseling intake form for me (correctly assuming I wouldn’t do it myself). I refreshed my email nervously for the next few days, but the response never came.
Many Bowdoin students that I know fall under the 40.9 percent, be it because they have been struggling for a while or because being young during a pandemic is uniquely and excruciatingly difficult. Most Bowdoin students I know need help—whether they have sought it, are seeking it or have been refused it. Most Bowdoin students I know are staying afloat, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. This is not a cry for help. If it were, though, I wouldn’t necessarily expect Bowdoin to answer it.
K Irving is a member of the Class of 2021.