April 22, 2019

WANG | On Mental Health

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This upcoming weekend, Cornell will host the fourth annual Ivy League Mental Health Conference, where delegates from all the Ivy League schools come together to discuss the state of mental health on our campuses. Considering Ivy League schools recently got slapped with a D or worse by the Ruderman Family Foundation for our leave of absence policies, there’s a sense of urgency in rectifying the mistakes we made. If we’re really among the best schools in the nation, it’s time we act like it.

Cornell Minds Matter has been the driving force in organizing the conference, brainstorming, making calls, asking for funding. As a small part of the organization, I’ve gotten a first-hand view of the planning for the conference. It’s a big gathering, hosting 100 attendees, with the hope that the conference will spark meaningful conversations regarding mental health. Planning logistics has also been rough, considering the club is trying to organize travel from every Ivy League School to Ithaca. (Planning travel from Dartmouth was especially perplexing. It was like one of those philosophical questions snide professors ask: How do you go from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere?)

But through it all, as the organization has begun to put pieces in place, pulling resources and support from the community and debating meaningful topics to address at the conference, I’ve been fidgeting with my own perspective on mental health. I’ve been sometimes described as “over the top,” “too exuberant” and “cartoonishly happy.” That might be hard to reconcile with my far less energetic writing, but it’s really just who I am — hyper, tireless, aimlessly positive, vacantly cheerful.

But the last year has been a sharply unsettling change of pace for me, where I’ve been changing moods like I change outfits. It’s bad. It’s pushed me to start calling CAPS despite their DMV-esque wait times because I’m sure it’s a much better alternative to sitting empty-eyed at 3 AM in a deserted Duffield Hall, wondering how a mood swing was able to completely tank my day.

I blame my happy face. My family wasn’t really the type to address these issues growing up, willing to deflect these issues at the cost of saving face. Maybe it’s the general Asian American apathy to mental health, where admitting such issues meant something was defective about you. Or maybe it was our family, which was entwined with acting in China, simply having a natural affinity for putting on a happy face when we felt otherwise. The act was more important than the machinations underneath. Either way, it wasn’t productive to fixing whatever issues we had going on swirling inside our heads, and lately, I’m starting to see the damage it’s caused.

It’s especially pronounced here. Cornell has a way of compounding our miseries and peeling off our outer faces. A month ago, one of my friends verbalized the omnipresence of our angst when after a miserable prelim week she wryly said, “Any Person, Any Suffering.”

I rolled my eyes when she said that. “That’s like, the most Cornellian thing I’ve ever heard.” But maybe it’s indicative of Cornell and the culture we’ve created here, where jokes about mental health are casual throwaway lines, where depression isn’t so much a condition but a gag. It’s a shrug and a nervous laugh personified: Depression is just another on a long list of troubles we have to endure, like a cryptic professor or a speeding ticket. It’s a slap in the face to those who have to deal with it on a daily basis.

So being part of CMM over the past year at a time when mental health awareness has become an increasingly hot-button issue has me re-evaluating what one person on campus can accomplish. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not much, unfortunately. There’s too much going on at once for an individual to have an outsized impact. But in our friend groups, we each have a part to play, a line to spout, an elegy to say. It has come to a head when I’ve gone through the ups and downs of being my own therapist and being an emotional cushion for those who need it. Sitting down and having a meaningful conversation has been the most effective way of grappling with these problems. Mental illness is somehow wispily conceptual but oppressively tangible. But verbalizing it, to turn it from abstract thoughts to three-dimensional waves, actualizes the problem, forces us to confront it instead of letting it fester. There’s power in speaking truth, as painful as it may be.

If anything, the one thing I’ve learned during my time at Cornell is how shoving aside these issues can corrupt relationships. Bluntly looking over them, patting each other on the back for reassurance, just wasn’t good enough. Taking broad strokes with a hyper-strained sense of forced happiness, I tried to plastic wrap everything with a bland sense of ambition. Everything was going to be fine, I told my friends who came to me for help. I cringe now when I wander back to those moments. It curated cluelessness; it bled insensitivity.

It’s something I didn’t realize until the tables were turned.  A few weeks ago, I told my friend I had been going a tough time. He deflated his chest, sat down next to me and gave me a line I’ve heard too many times before: “Everything’s going to be okay.”

To be honest, I frowned when he said that. It was a pretty sentiment, pleasant and agreeable, safe and forgettable, quietly hopeful but resoundingly meaningless. The intentions were good, but I’m running out of time to subsist on good intentions.

But I’m still largely hopeful about the future. Working alongside passionate mental health advocates at CMM has left me feeling upbeat about what we can accomplish — what we’ve already accomplished, from hosting de-stressing events to hosting meaningful dialogue —    and what the future leaders of this country can rectify.

Tackling mental health issue was never meant to be easy. It’s a treacherous odyssey from the first moment we slip to the moment we get back up. We all get there in different ways. For me personally, I’m ready to hang up my happy face. I’m done with acting. I’m just happy being.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower runs every other Tuesday this semester.