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Mirchandani '15: Putting a grade on your mental health

During one of many thought-provoking conversations, the type that can only occur when hiking, a friend reshaped my thoughts on mental health. She asked, “How would you confront your mental health if it were a course you were taking for a grade?”

Mental health is an issue I did not consider prior to college. There was physical health that humans justifiably should pay attention to, but the thought of the mind getting sick through some sort of random chemical imbalance was as absurd to me as the idea of combining bacon with sugary baked goods.

Brown is not a school where students are solely motivated by grades. I and the other seasoned Brunonians on the hiking trip knew this well. Yet the idea of grading our mental health caused all nine of us to stop in our tracks and reevaluate whether we would approach our mental well-being differently if it were to show up on our transcripts at the end of every semester. It made it possible for us to think about something otherwise so intangible in units of measurement.

It’s not that I thought the mind was invincible; I just didn’t see it as susceptible to illnesses. Unfortunately, this is the general attitude toward mental illnesses in India, where I was raised — ironic given that it’s the same part of the world that preaches the power of the mind through Yogic practices. But today, the existence of mental disorders is far from being stigmatized; it is barely acknowledged.

Data show that India and other poorer countries in which the quality of life is reportedly lower actually report fewer instances of depression, according to Live Science. From my observations, depression in India is viewed as a weakness of the mind and a lack of appreciation for what one has, not as a disease. Ultimately, it is seen as just a passing phase, nothing a lengthy Bollywood movie full of song and dance can’t fix.

If I had to put a grade on my mental health after coming to Brown, I’d make a solid B. Brown has a plethora of opportunities that slap us in the face every morning as we step out of bed. This can leave us feeling either exhausted from trying to capture every moment or bitter about the ones we consciously have to let go of or fail to catch. The “fear of missing out” is a disease that plagues college life in general, not just for those of us at Brown, and can result in unexpected mental wear and tear.

Mental health was not a class I shopped and definitely not one I registered for. Mental health was not a course that would appear on my internal or external transcript; it was not a grade I felt obliged to report back home. Employers could not care less about it. But by junior year, it ended up demanding as much attention as one of my five courses. What’s worse is that it detracted from the attention I could give to other things in my life. There were internships to be applied for, events to be attended, friends to be dined with and passions and life purposes yet to be discovered.

While conversations on campus critiqued the lack of open discourse on these issues, I was surprised by any mention of it at all. Here I was dealing with a problem I was not convinced existed. Here I was meeting a requirement I could not take S/NC or drop right before finals.

It is not Brown’s fault for not making enough strides to destigmatize it. I am not concerned about the taboo fiction of depression. If I buy into the fact that it is a medical condition like cancer, I have no reason to be ashamed because falling victim is beyond my control. But when viewed as a product of the culture I live in, then perhaps I should be ashamed for succumbing to what other cultures might view as a mere “fad,” like binge watching Netflix or shotgunning beer cans. I had been strong enough to resist adopting the American accent but not this.

Back home, antidepressants are the Lord Voldemort of medication — they are those things that “must not be named.” My mother will often ask sounding most distressed, “Can’t you just stop feeling this way?” And my father, a no-nonsense kind of guy, dismisses any conversation on the topic with a “Ria, you need to be more thick-skinned.” They mean well, but they lack the vocabulary to express that, and because they have only their tougher past experiences to compare to, they also lack the sympathy or patience to try to connect.

Step one of solving a problem is to recognize it exists. But ignoring it could be the most efficient way to avoid the hassle of finding a solution. Labeling the state of our brains as “depressed” runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — I never used to have a hard time waking up until my senior class awarded me the superlative of “Person Most Likely to Sleep Through Commencement.”

In the 1930s, there emerged the theory of linguistic relativity or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. It stated that “the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world.” No language implies no concept.

Living a life of disability because of his blindness was not a concept for Daniel Kish, whose story has gained much popularity recently as the “Batman story.” He navigates his environment using sonar, like a bat does. His mother never expected him to live life handicapped; she never let him adopt that language and therefore let him climb trees and ride bikes.

Expectations can change our behavior and our performance. No society expects its members to be depressed. But by defining depression using the language that has always been used, we permit its existence. Because we accept depression as a tangible problem, we accept all of its shortcomings and are quick to stick it on as a label in various situations, such as the Germanwings pilot’s crash last month.

Kish was not ignorant of his blindness but of the fact that it was a disability, and sometimes ignorance can be bliss. When you come from a place that expects you to power through a rough patch rather than label it as “depression” into a culture where oversleeping and under-eating can result in a prescription of Prozac, it can cause a clash of beliefs that can leave you conflicted and confused.

Sometimes it’s beyond the University’s control to ensure struggling students overcome mental illnesses. Today as we proudly tout the statistic that the next incoming class has students from all 50 states and 85 nations, it is this diversity of backgrounds that can become a hurdle to overcoming mental illnesses, even when the University might be providing many resources.

No one decides to be depressed. But deciding to acknowledge it as a medical condition that requires treatment — that’s a weightier question of identity. There is no familiar language of grades to quantify or communicate the state of our mental health, but perhaps it is worthy of the same amount of thought that we give to our classes.


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