Reducing loneliness key to improving wellness at CMU

Credit: Madeline Kim /Forum Editor Credit: Madeline Kim /Forum Editor

It's no secret that college can be a challenging environment, and Carnegie Mellon is no exception. Last week, on Tartan Community Day, Dietrich professor David Creswell presented the results of the Life@CMU study, a project that began in 2017 to attempt to quantify aspects of students' wellbeing. Although our campus has been engaging in an ongoing conversation on mental health, this study made the topic feel less abstract and more approachable.

The results of the research suggest that Carnegie Mellon isn’t particularly more stressful than other colleges. That leads to the million-dollar question: why do Carnegie Mellon students dub the school a soul-sucking institution or give it catchphrases like “fun dies at Carnegie Mellon”?

The phrase “stress culture” oversimplifies the scope of the problem our campus faces. It is easy to assume stress culture simply refers to students’ stress levels. If this were the case, the research that suggests Carnegie Mellon isn’t abnormally stressful compared to other college campuses would dispel the claim of a distinct stress culture. However, the concept of stress culture extends further than the pressure to excel in the classroom or earn a prestigious summer internship.

Our culture equates more work to better work. Life@CMU found that the average student goes to bed at 2:23 a.m. and wakes up at 9:30 a.m., making the average amount of sleep close to 7 hours per night. However, the study also found that students estimated that their classmates slept an average of 5.6 hours. This flawed perception can push students to get fewer hours to match up with their concept of the “average student.” If they sleep more than their classmates, what does that say about their own productivity and progress? Logically, it doesn’t say anything in and of itself. Harder work doesn’t mean better work, and sleep deprivation has been shown to have a serious impact on students’ performance. Still, students internalizing and glorifying an unhealthy lifestyle can cause hits to their mental health.

Isolation is another detriment to students' mental health. The Life@CMU findings suggested loneliness increases as the semester progresses, making students more susceptible to stress and depression. On top of the pressures of being a college student, students may feel pressured to maintain an image that hides struggles or perceived "weakness." This pressure can further exacerbate isolation and thus cause further mental health problems.

This leads to one of the larger gaps on our college campus: the lack of dialogue. Even if students are cognizant that Carnegie Mellon is not an easy place to be, going from being a big fish in a small pond to swimming in a large ocean is a daunting experience for anyone. Events like Fresh Check Day are appreciated, but we need more consistent initiatives throughout the year to provide support for students and to continuously show that they are not alone in their struggles. It's difficult to handle the responsibilities of a college student. Combining that with mental illnesses, difficult in their own right, creates a weight that is impossible to carry alone. By not having dialogue, students may feel alone in their experiences and consequently isolate themselves.

This is not a task that students can tackle on their own. Despite the 2017 expansion of Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS), students are often faced with long wait times between appointments, assuming they can even schedule an appointment at all. Students have also expressed dissatisfaction with the services offered at CaPS. This demonstrates a need for more comprehensive mental health resources for students. Students need a space where they can get adequate care, including individual therapy sessions and group therapy programs, without having to jump through hoops or wait for weeks.

To paraphrase Andrew Carnegie, our "hearts are in the work." However, there comes a point in which we need to fill our hearts with more than just "the work." We need to make time to adopt healthy lifestyles and maintain strong relationships with others. It’s not a task that one student or one project can accomplish alone; it's a collaborative effort that requires continuous efforts and initiative from students, administration, and faculty. These forms of self-care and more candid conversations don't promote self-indulgence; they promote responsibility.