On Wellness, Semantics, Transparency, and Other Buzzwords
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog Editor Alexandra Svokos is tired of hearing the word “wellness.”
This past Sunday, the Student Wellness Project hosted their second Wellness Summit from 1-4 pm in the Diana. I left this summit far more stressed than I had been before I walked in. I was agitated following the discussions, having been pounded with a reminder of the faults in this school and campus. Ultimately, I concluded that it hadn’t been a productive use of my time, and I sincerely wondered how useful it was for SWP.
I’m gonna level with you here: I’ve been wary of SWP since its conception in fall 2011, following the suicide of Tina Bu, CC’13. Perhaps to their credit, much of my distrust has consistently come from semantics and presentation. In December 2011, The Eye published a two-part piece on “How We’re Doing.” The first part was by Wilfred Chan, explaining the need for SWP as well as increased administrative aid for student wellness; the second was by Sarah Ngu, a close friend of Bu. Ngu made it clear that Bu was surrounded by an incredibly supportive group consisting of family, friends, therapists, RAs, and so on. But unfortunately depression is a hard disease to predict and control.
After reading this package, I was confused. The pairing seemed wrong: one arguing we need more support on campus, one delicately explaining that there was substantial support, but tragedies still happen. One arguing the external, that this school is a stressful place with high expectations, one delicately explaining the internal, an experience with a mental disease. Having lost a friend to suicide 18 months earlier, I understood Chan’s shock and motivation to implement a change on your community. Once you go through a tragedy like this, you never ever ever want to experience it again–and never ever ever want anyone else to have to experience it.
However, you just can’t control for that. As the suicide of Martha Corey-Ochoa, CC’16, on the first night of NSOP 2012 proved, sometimes it doesn’t matter if a person is in a kind community with proper resources. There is an inherent difference between mental health–depression, mental disorders–and mental well-being–stress, emotional strength. SWP began as a paradox: a cause for mental well-being in reaction to an issue of mental health.
“Wellness” is a big word. The Student Wellness Project has used it as an umbrella term including under it everything from mental health to community building to stress relief to institutional and educational policy changes. I’m still not entirely sure what their purpose is now, more specifically than “people are stressed let’s fix that.” The summit showed signs of this blobbiness of purpose: it opened with talks from Dr. Richard Eichler, Director of CPS, Dr. Samuel Seward, Associate VP Medical Director, and Bob Sun, CC’14, VP Policy for CCSC. How one group is supposed to tackle a school’s psychological issues, medical problems, and educational policy is beyond me–talk about unrealistic self-expectations. It should also be noted that all three of these speakers left directly after giving their speeches, indicating that they weren’t there to hear from students, they were there to spout all the good stuff they do. Sun reportedly left because he had to study for a midterm, as if he was the only person in the room who had work to do.
In the past two years, SWP has brought us candy, puppies, and a proposition for a first-year P/D/F policy. I was (and still am) against the P/D/F Policy. As I’ve said before, this is an Ivy League university–it’s not supposed to be a breeze. The thing is, this place is stressful. It’s never going to not be stressful. The mere fact of being in New York City is enough to ensure that. A fair amount of stress isn’t always bad; it motivates and pushes you to work harder. But obviously living in a high-stress, no-compassion environment for four years is not good.
It is important that we have these conversations about wellness on campus, and it is important that there is a group trying to improve student life. This is much better than me sitting like a petulant teenager with my arms crossed grumbling that it’s always gonna be hard, so what’s the point? But I’m not sure if SWP is handling it in the proper way. Rather than highlight the positives, SWP bolds the negatives. The agenda for the summit included discussion questions, many of which were clearly leading–“Is taking 23 credits a semester admirable, or is this a recipe for overwhelming stress?” “Why do students take 6 classes as a norm when we are encouraged to take four–what are we trying to prove?” “Has the Columbia administration or faculty created this culture, or is it created and maintained by the students?”
To which my group respectively concluded: if someone wants to take 23 credits and can handle it, they should do that. Students typically don’t take 6 classes as a norm, and who’s to say a student taking 6 classes is out to prove something? Maybe they like taking classes or are in an engineering program which requires that. What exactly is “this culture”? Again, we’re back to semantics, but in a discussion that matters.
To get even more nitpicky–SWP provided 4 statements to agree/disagree with, two of which were “Our biggest community stressor is institutional bureaucracy” and “Our biggest stressors include unrealistic self-expectations.” A person is more liable to strongly agree with a less precise statement like “biggest stressors include” rather than a precise “biggest community stressor is.” It follows that many more people strongly agreed with the self-expectations statement than the institutional bureaucracy one. After discussions, however, much of the conversation floated to bureaucracy, leading some participants to claim that, because of this discrepancy, students put all the blame for stress on bureaucracy rather than accept it as our own fault.
I, for one, would be less stressed if SACBO had sent me the $50 reimbursement that I submitted for 7 months ago or paid the winners of a festival I was on the board of–again, for which the paperwork was turned in 7 months ago. Registration this week would’ve been a lot easier if I knew what creative writing classes were offered before I logged into SSOL. And my life would be a hell of a lot nicer if Dean Martinez openly explained what the plans–if there are any–are for the Dems’ proposed changes in the sexual assault policy.
As tends to happen here, conversation turned to “transparency.” If administrators were open about the decisions behind, say, Barnard overnight guest or commuter access policies, we might be less frustrated. This is where one participant mentioned the sexual assault policy, saying she had no idea what currently was going on with it in the administration, to which a Spec reporter and myself made eye contact and could not help but laugh: we have no idea either. One participating administrator complained that students keep using this blanket term “administration,” but who are we really talking about? Perhaps if we understood how “the administration” works and who takes care of what, we could stop using a term that points to our perception of the school’s leaders: an imposing, impersonal mass.
Another participant suggested that administrators (I hate to keep using the term…) write op-eds for Spec about what they’re doing and why. To this, an administrator said they would, but they’re scared of nasty feedback from commenters (hi guys). Here I’d like to take a moment to applaud everyone who’s ever put their name on a post for Bwog, Spec, the Lion, whatever else–turns out you’re braver than some of the people who run this place. So there it is, there exists a fear of criticism and “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.”
But let’s get back to educational student wellness. That’s what we’re supposed to be talking about, right? I spent three hours last weekend reaching the exact conclusions I’d known from the start: Columbia is stressful for a variety of reasons that vary depending on who you’re talking to. A lot of stress is self-motivated and can only be lessened by changing your own expectations. There are probably some ways to improve the overall “wellness” on campus. I still am not certain what those ways are, unless you were to eliminate all classes, clubs, and socialization.
SWP came into this summit looking for people to affirm their preconceived ideas, and they got that. Afterwards, I talked to a leader to see what would come from this. He explained that they are going to continue on doing what they had been doing–creating their Wellness Report and working on what sounds like an awesome and very useful mass FAQ website for students. I left to get a much-needed coffee.
tl;dr I should’ve stayed in on Sunday.
Seriously unwell lady laying in bed and warding off the sunlight via Shutterstock
Tags: #longreads, alexandra svokos, belligerent rants, how many buzzwords could we fit into one article?, institutional memory, sorry not sorry for ranting and raving, Student Wellness Project, SWP, tl;dr, transparency