Last we spoke, I was spouting off about my cat. I described in gratuitous detail how Lump landed in my life, but I skirted around the reason for my hasty decision to adopt her, making only a cursory mention of my depression before digressing into a narrative. Now it’s time to focus on the melancholy elephant in the room.
This should be straightforward, because depression is an issue that affects many of us for myriad reasons. To understand what the rates look like within the context of UC Berkeley, you should look at the Graduate Assembly’s 2014 report on Happiness and Well Being for graduate students. Some known related factors include being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer identified student (the report doesn’t mention transgender identities, unfortunately) or an underrepresented minority student. And if you want to understand how underrepresented groups feel less comfortable and less included than their peers, you can read about that in the campus climate study conducted in 2013.
But it’s not only demographic issues that encourage depression. Stress and pressure, characteristic of academic institutions, foster depressive states in people, and nearly 30 percent of college students report feeling depressed to the point that it impairs their academic performance, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At a notoriously demanding place such as UC Berkeley, where competition and stress are de rigeur, depression is disturbingly common.
And there needn’t always be a clear etiology, either. When talking to my best friend, Shyenne, about her own experience with depression, the picture she painted was of an illness that descends like a fog. At first you’re surprised, but soon you forget how the world ever appeared before.
“I probably missed half of my classes last semester,” she said. “I just slept — I just couldn’t get out of bed. And I did all the stereotypical depression things. I put the blinds up — I wanted to be in a really dark, small space. And I don’t usually cry … but on Wednesday, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and I weeped, and I never do that. In the mornings, I wake up, and it’s like coming out of an inadequate sleep where you’re unaware of being, existing and stuff. Waking up from something like that is really devastating to me — remembering who I am and my life. So I think that’s something a depressed person might say.”
I think so, too.
Given what students face — and not saying anything of the added challenges that cusping adulthood introduces into our quotidian realities — it should come as no shock that many of us struggle with or know someone who has struggled with depression. The campus’s Tang Center acknowledges the ubiquity of depression and provides infographics, training videos and screening tests. And as a complement to the five free counseling sessions it offers, the Tang Center also devotes a great deal to preventative campaigns such as the Be Well to Do Well program, offers tips and strategies for managing depression, and even sponsors Pet Hugs events.
And believe me when I say hugging a pet is powerful medicine. The therapy of Pet Hugs exemplifies what that the vast majority of us know intuitively: Animals make people feel better. But the events also betray another fact — one that works to undermine the previous statement — which is this: Most housing options don’t allow animals.
As many of us have experienced, affordable housing options in Berkeley are scarce, and many students default into apartments, the residence halls or the co-ops — all of which have strict policies against certain types of pets. With the residence halls in particular, you have your pick of critters that can live in (up to) 20 gallon fish tanks (emphasis on the “fish”), which really makes “pet” a misnomer. With the co-ops, you’re restricted to cold-blooded animals, and you face severe fines and possible eviction if caught with something even remotely cuddly. Of course, this makes sense when you understand that the especially cold-blooded animals are the ones making these policies.
Harsh, you say? Well, these policies could use some reexamining, particularly in light of the mental health issues so prevalent among students. Because what are the real costs of allowing students to keep pets when weighed against the benefits of student happiness and well being? How many parents would be relieved to know that their child, despite being away from home (maybe for the first time), at least had the familiar comfort of his or her faithful pet?
A pet isn’t a replacement for counseling or medication, though I do know a lot of folks more willing to deal with allergies and poop than antidepressants’ side effects.
And I’m not saying that allowing students to keep pets is some panacea. What I am saying is that we ought to give students every means to fight and win the battles behind their foreheads (for Joyce’s sake).
Depression is one such battle we need not fight by ourselves.
With Lump by my side, I no longer do.
Zion Barrios writes the Monday column on social topics that rarely enter open conversation. You can contact him at [email protected].