March 10, 2020

LORENZEN | How Are You?

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Content Warning: This article contains mentions of depression and suicide. 

It seems like everyone you know is “dying.” Not literally in terms of heartbeat and body temperature. No, it’s when you ask them how they’re doing, and they tend to reply, “I’m dying,” “terribly” or with one of those sardonic smiles and tilted heads as they pantomime a noose around their necks. There are people who are genuinely doing well. They’re well adjusted, healthy, probably out running six miles a day, chugging vegan smoothies and holding hands with Martha Pollack somewhere. They do exist … And yet when you talk with any of your peers here and ask them how they’re doing, it seems most of them are unhappy and quick to tell you so. At one of the greatest universities in the world within the wealthiest nation in the world, at a time of unparalleled innovation and technology, most young people — at least qualitatively — are “dying.” Nowadays, the answer to “How are you?” is a dark one.

That’s frightening.

It’s frightening because that answer is reflective of a reality more and more of us seem to have. Beyond the litany of headlines calling attention to the Gen Z mental health crisis, the raw statistics point to growing dissatisfaction with life. Between 2009 and 2017, the rate of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who reported symptoms of major depression increased by 63%. Moreover, from 2008 to 2017, suicide attempts spiked 87 percent among individuals aged 20 to 21 and 108 percent for 22 and 23-year-olds. Our generation is more depressed and more suicidal than any before on record. The growing trend towards answering “How are you?” with “terribly” or “I’m dying” is frightening because it is emblematic of the fact that more and more of our peers report that they are indeed doing terribly, even experiencing suicidal thoughts.

It’s frightening because it’s become the cool answer. Camo pants may be out this season, but self destruction is very much in. It’s become cool to portray yourself as run ragged, on the brink of a nervous breakdown. It is already well know that Cornell boasts a culture of competitive sleep deprivation, where we contend for the most intense all nighters and caffeine binges in a self-endangering manifestation of a cutthroat academic culture, but there is a large culture beyond Cornell’s campus through which young people view being unstable as being edgy, different and exciting. We compete to elicit the sympathy of others in what are veiled popularity contests, and we vastly exaggerate the trials and tribulations of our own lives in doing so. We hyper dramatize: We’re not doing “well” or “good” or “fine.” Those are all boring. No, we’re “dying.” Our lives are mysterious and dangerous and fleeting … How are we, really? It depends on how you react to that answer. It’s designed to elicit your attention.

Most of all, it’s frightening because it quite often is entirely genuine. That’s what makes the status of negative answers to “How are you?” so perilous. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between “I’m dying” and “I’m dying.” How can we know who needs our support badly, who is really trying to reach out and ask for help? In a generation wracked by such profound depression and suicidal tendencies, there is a real authenticity to answering unhappily, but it is one that is weakened by its adoption as a popular refrain designed to make oneself appear interesting. We have a responsibility to help those going through periods of mental anguish in absolutely any way we can, especially at a school which frequently seems content to create stress in its students like a tea kettle creates steam, only without ever letting it escape — leaving the pot perpetually whistling in a high pitched scream. We have a responsibility to look out for one another, to reach out and offer a comforting word when it’s most needed. That is what makes our language so profoundly important — the casualization of mental health vocabulary makes it more difficult for us to be there for one another because we can’t discern between reality and fiction.

As we strive to build a community which cares for its most vulnerable members, we have to first strive towards a community in which we all raise our struggles in conversations honestly and feel comfortable while doing so. To create that dynamic, we need to first challenge ourselves to speak truthfully about our own mental states in even the most fundamental, most mundane social queries. So, ask yourself honestly:

“How are you?”

And then use that answer. It’s the one we all need to hear.

Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

Andrew Lorenzen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at alorenzen@cornellsun.com. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.