Attending college — especially elite and globally recognized institutions — is a concept that we are told will be the key to a successful and happy life. After all the work that it takes to make it to these universities, students are often filled with so much pride for getting accepted that it’s easy to forget what comes next: actually attending that academically rigorous school.
The first few weeks at UC Berkeley are when students begin to encounter the competitive and exclusive culture here. Club recruitment contributes to this.
Many students are surprised to find that applying to clubs on campus involves multiple rounds of applications and interviews and extremely low acceptance rates. Further, there’s a discovery that studying seems never ending: all-nighters in the library, early mornings in the study lounges or Friday nights in the laundry rooms.
These first experiences are part of the initiation. A welcome to the Berkeley shared identity. One that is defined by boba shops, Birkenstocks and let’s face it: stress, depression and competition. It’s somewhat inevitable that at a highly ranked university, there will be high levels of stress and depression. However, the issue is not just that rigorous universities have poor student mental health, it’s that, in some ways, we are proud of this aspect of our identity. It proves that we are working hard, are at the top in our field, and that we will lead successful lives.
According to a 2017 Cal Student Assessment on Mental Health Survey Report, “85.7% of students felt anxious and agitated and 90.9% felt stressed due to academic reasons during the past week.” Several factors play into extremely high levels of stress. Attending a large school such as Cal results in less accessible academic and emotional support resources. Students face grade deflation and compete among peers for spots in shared departments. Additionally, the pandemic plays a role in the current student mental health crisis: Several classes of students had their entire college experiences derailed, and upon return, there’s a feeling of loss and uncertainty.
A primary way that Berkeley students cope with stress is through dark humor. Just look at r/Berkeley, the subreddit dedicated to all things UC Berkeley, a place where people anonymously share their darkest thoughts. For example, this post by an anonymous user: “Tempted to sleep on campus with a blanket or something overnight because my anxiety is that bad I can’t stay cooped up in my room. My mental health sucks y’all but go bears.”
There’s no denying there’s something comforting about knowing that you are not the only one who’s stressed. After all, humor is a great outlet for things that are difficult to share.
The issue is that if pushing through intense levels of stress is a part of what it means to be a Berkeley student, then admitting that it’s too much would suggest that you don’t belong. To reach out would be weak and might prove the nagging voice insisting we don’t deserve to be here to be true.
If we don’t address increased feelings of incompetence and the stigma surrounding asking for help we will continue to see rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality.
I first hand witnessed the power of peer-to-peer and confidential resources when volunteering for TeenLine, a crisis hotline for teenagers. I knew that something like this could be crucial for UC Berkeley students. This led me to start the UC Berkeley Lean On Me chapter: a non-crisis, peer-to-peer, anonymous emotional support text line for undergraduate students.
Originating from MIT, Lean On Me is a chapter-based national organization that builds text lines on college campuses with the larger goal of destigmatizing seeking emotional support.
Since September 2020, we’ve been training UC Berkeley students in active listening and collaborative problem solving, providing students with support at their fingertips, whether it’s to rant about a failed midterm score, reflect on a bad hookup or question taking time off school.
The format is perfect for addressing reasons why Berkeley students often don’t reach out: cost, stigma and accessibility. The hope is that if students have a positive experience talking anonymously with a peer, they may consider taking steps to receive professional help.
This summer, the world witnessed the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport, Simone Biles, do something more revolutionary than any floor routine: she “gave up.” Under the highest pressure of all, we watched her admit that it was too demanding and that it was more important for her to prioritize her well-being. To see someone in a coveted position on the global stage, declaring that mental health comes first was massive.
There is nothing impressive about pushing yourself to the point of no return — it is always braver to be vulnerable. So maybe it’s time we shift away from this aspect of our “Berkeley identity”: the competition of who is closest to the breaking point. Maybe it’s time that admitting when it’s hard, asking for help and practicing self-care become a part of who we are as UC Berkeley students.
Daniella Ivanir is the founder and chief executive of Lean On Me at UC Berkeley.