This semester, mental health at Furman has hit an all-time low. Students are struggling academically and suffering burnout. At their wit’s end, many are packing their bags and going home (as I did for a week). Early on, it was easy to blame this trend on our lack of breaks. But our issues with mental health may be a more enduring problem, one with deeper roots on campus than the relative isolation and lack of breaks as a result of COVID-19.
From my time here so far, I can tell that the Furman community upholds a certain model student: the high-achieving, sociable go-getter that is constantly doing things. Our community runs on high expectations that center on academic achievement but extend into extracurricular and social activities. “You have to have all these friends and have all these plans and be involved and do all these things,” said freshman Reagan Scott, “People have to realize that this is not realistic, especially in a pandemic.”
But among Furman students, there is a deep-rooted discomfort in the idea of stepping back or taking a breath. When everyone puts forward only their best selves, the pressure to perform in all areas increases. Sophomore Nath Kapoor phrased it this way: “When we think of mental health, we think of someone alone in their room or stressed out about their biology test. But I think the majority of our mental health issues on campus stem from the socialization process — learning to behave in a way that’s acceptable.” Within the Furman bubble, it is hard not to constantly want to do more, given that within our small and intimate community, nearly everything and everyone is on display. We expect a lot out of ourselves and out of each other: “We’re just trying to feel worthy within this little community,” Kapoor said.
As a result, alone time and emotional reflection are infrequent for many students; and for those who do set aside time for them regularly, it is difficult to avoid feelings of academic guilt or fear of missing out. In order to feel adequate, “the thing you sacrifice most is your mental health,” said senior Tripp Owen. By favoring constant achievement and social excellence, the Furman community praises the things that amount to facades but misses out on deeper connections with ourselves, our friends and our true passions. It is a problem most of us fall prey to, but one that we could solve.
The administration’s offers of mental health days and a CLP on burnout have not helped to lift students’ spirits thus far. According to Owen, it is because we have not heard actual students’ voices on the topic. Our population of high achievers is one that deflects natural conversations about mental health and the real answer to the “How are you?” question. As students, we need to be mindful of our academic success but also social limits and talk to others with transparency. Otherwise, we will assume everyone but ourselves is perfectly well off. On a larger scale, we need more platforms for students facing mental health issues to speak out. Owen suggests that a campus-wide conference or a series of CLPs where students share their testimonies could work to dismantle the high bar of expectation to which we hold ourselves. In any case, it is time for students’ voices to be heard, to ripple across campus and create a new conversation about mental health.