How We’re Doing

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Last year, we posted excerpts from a Harvard Crimson editorial, “I Am Fine,” and you responded with extraordinary sympathy and support in the comments. Two stories from the most recent of the edition of The Eye, written by Wilfred Chan, CC’13, and Sarah Ngu, CC’12, similarly resonated with us.  You can read an abridged version below, and the full feature, “How We’re Doing,” here.

At Columbia, stress and misery are treated as harmless norms, and competitive commiseration has become the official school sport…But when stress is recast as a harmless, shared culture, many students end up suffering in silence… The tremendous outpouring of grief and solidarity from over a hundred and fifty anonymous strangers on Bwog is a haunting testament to how intimately Columbians understand desolation…On reflection, I realized that this sort of deep, searing honesty is required if we want to get past simply being “fine” and think about what it means to be truly well… Though we can never get rid of stress, we can change the way we think about it….Let us listen to one another, and create an environment where students can not only ask for help, but share their feelings of joy. We should strive to build a real community around the ideals of wellness, support, and genuine self-love…All of this starts with self-discovery, which is a highly personal, subjective — and often difficult — journey. But if we can start with just one thing, let us remember to simply remind those around us that we really care. —Wilfred Chan


[Tina] was walking on a high, thin beam of normalcy, carefully weaving safety nets of friendship, therapy, and medication to support her. Then, at some point last semester, something pushed her off the edge, and the nets couldn’t hold her… Reality can be harsh, but what is worse is when depression strips you of the tools to deal with it and then creates a pseudo-reality.

In articles like this, one is supposed to lift lessons out of tragedies with a few deft strokes of a pen. While it is clear that there are general things that ought to be changed, when I examine my individual story with Tina and what it means to be a friend on the sidelines, I don’t have any solid answers, just open questions about the intransigent problem of communication…how do you translate perceived emotion into instructions for action? When Tina told me how she was feeling, I wasn’t always sure how to respond, afraid I would do something wrong…What do you do when a friend seeks help and then pulls back and seems happier? It was as if there was a fire going on in the house, and Tina had opened the windows but kept the door locked. We were left watching from the outside…

The cry of pain is universal, but sometimes it is misheard, heard too late, or heard with little to no hints of what to do. The story of Tina’s death is not a story about how someone fell through the cracks. People in Residential Life, Advising, and Psychological Services and her close friends all knew and were keeping tabs. Perhaps we could have reacted in overcompensation to intervene, but would our intervention only have delayed the inevitable? For no matter how much care was thrown her way, it always hit an internal wall. It was acknowledged by her, even gratefully so, but ultimately repelled…Staring at the stiff, wooden funeral casket, [I] wonder[ed] at the fact that it contained Tina while disbelieving it at the same time. It technically held her body, surely, just as her depression had held her in a vise of unreality, but neither of them captured her. —Sarah Ngu

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  1. phuck, man!

    was just having an AMAZING jolly day. this girl said YES! i got a 97% on this project I spent 3 months on. winter research funding approved. i got into final rounds for a full time position in June. all in one day.

    ...then i come back and read this article.

    now im depressed as fack.


  2. Anonymous  

    The world doesn't revolve around you.

  3. i need to say this  

    i just lost something that i really, truly cared about. i have had so many bad things happen but they were all of a trivial nature so i didn't tell anyone how much it hurt because i imagined they'd tell me i was overreacting. and now that i've lost something i loved so much and i feel comfortable expressing myself because i know that people will sympathize with me, i realize that all my fear is silly. hurt is hurt and i was in pain. i am pain and i am finally saying so. this semester has been hard not for what it was but for the pain i had to go through everyday, all without feeling like i could get support from my peers. and now that i feel like i can get support, i just think, it ought not to be the significance of the tragedy that matters, what ought to matter is the hurt and the sadness that happens inside the soul. is all i have to say. sorry for ranting.

  4. Old Man

    Out of the student deaths Columbia's experienced in the past 5 years or so (consult WikiCU for details), why is this one receiving all this coverage? Because of when it occurred in the school year? Because Facebook is ubiquitous and people are willing to be more public about their emotions? Because she knew the "right" people to keep this story active? Because the university is more considerate about students' feelings over the years?

    Usually, these type of things are a week of media coverage, a retrospective X months down the line, then in two years, everybody's forgotten and everybody moves on. Not that this coverage isn't a good thing, it just feels like *something's* changed from the usual modus operandi.

    • Anonymous  

      You're right, things are changing! You raise interesting questions about WHY - but I think that the HOW is far more important to focus on.
      The modus operandi has been broken for a long time so this feels like a very positive change to me.

    • Out and into the daylight

      Thank God something has changed. Wellness and mental health is coming out of the closet. And I applaud everyone who is unlocking the door.
      A beautiful and wrenching story. Thanks you , Sarah, for sharing.

  5. Anonymous  

    Eric Harms. RIP. Always in my thoughts.

  6. Anonymous

    These are so beautifully written, something needs to change and that's what this addresses. Depression is a disease with which Tina unfortunately lost her battle, but there is so much that can be done for others who don't have the support network Tina built around her. The mentality on the campus needs to change and that comes ultimately from the student body itself.

  7. '13  

    This article speaks the cold hard truth, the reality that many here experience privately to some degree, but no one publicly acknowledges, perhaps out of fear of being perceived as weak. As a student who has recently been experiencing many of the same feelings, I have resolved to take a semester off, but coming to terms with that decision in this environment has been very, very difficult. Plainly put, it should not be so difficult to make a decision that will make you happy. I love school, and I love to learn, but no one should wake up each and every morning afraid of their schoolwork. I believe this change really needs to grow upwards from the student body, and getting more students to accept and admit what this article expresses would be a great start. Keep it up.

  8. Alright, so  

    I posted this somewhere else in response to these articles (so yes, copypasta):

    Yes, well written, some good points (don't have the time to finish it now, but I'd like to later). Here's the thing: I've reached the point of truly not giving a fuck. I don't care about the Student Wellness Project. I don't care about the Administration. I don't care about the other 'people' at this school (except for, oh, I don't know, ~3 of them). I've never been unhappier in my life, and I've never hated anything as much as I've come to hate this school. My graduation in t-minus 5.5 months is going to be an incredibly happy day. And then I hope this entire experience will feel like a bad dream.

    - CC '12

    • Anonymous  

      I'm a 2012-er too and completely agree with this post and think most of my friends do as well. We want nothing to do with Columbia as soon as we graduate. They've done a terrible job supporting their students

      • Exactly.  

        I went to one of those "Chat with the Dean [Valentini]" events recently, and someone asked him how he envisioned the university's relationship with the seniors after their graduation. His first response was essentially that it was a financial relationship: as he put it, Columbia has given us something, and upon graduation, it's our chance to give back.

        I was raging (internally). It was a very crass thing to say--though perhaps just honest, insofar as that's how Columbia views its students. But the idea that Columbia has "given" me something...and for only $50,000+ a year! I don't think Columbia or the Dean would want what I'd like to give them in return.

        • Anonymous

          I'm here on full financial aid. I am grateful to be an in institution of this caliber. However, the only thing that makes Columbia bearable is you all: my friends and my classmates. Were it not for you all, this place would be desolate.

          People refer to the "War on Fun" like some half-serious-snarky-bwog&wikicu joke. But it's not--it's real. The administration actively destroys our outlets of release and tries to compartmentalize us into doing nothing but studying. They're so obsessed with the cold numbers of it all--they wan't a permanent spot as top 4 in the US New Rankings. They want a bigger endowment. I want these things too, but not at the expense of our respective college experiences. I didn't come to college just to study; I came to live.

          It's time the administration realized that we are people, not investments or statistics.

          • CC '12  

            The friends I've met here are the ONLY thing I want to keep with me from this place. It's a testament to them that they've been able to balance all the other negative things. I never would have made it without them. Maybe the admissions department deserves some credit for finding us in the first place. The rest of this university certainly doesn't.

            Maybe I'll look fondly back on this in ten years, but right now it feels like I just want to be done and never look back.

  9. Anonymous  

    "Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart." Try to remember this during every interaction you have.

  10. Anonymous

    I think CU does not realize that their treatment of us reduces the likelihood of post-graduation donations. Or maybe they do, but in my option, not enough to act quickly and extensively.

    I'm not trying to criminalize each and every individual/professor/admin, but as an institution, Columbia suffers from it's students suffering.

    If the University wants to continue to line it's coffers, it needs to a.) care genuinely about it's students' mental health, and b.) not treat us as mostly 'financial' considerations.

    On a more personal note, while I loved certain aspects of Columbia, and I will never regret my time there, there were moments when I was clinically depressed and did not realize it. Because of the culture that surrounds us. Because it is acceptable to be stressed to an extreme extent. Because anxiety is a way of life. Columbia is not a happy school. We are some of the best and brightest, but these problems are holding us - and our school - back.

    I hope future Columbians can have positive college experiences, and walk away without looking back and remembering/currently still experiencing the crippling effects of mental health issues.

  11. Anonymous  

    .... Man, maybe we should all just transfer! if Columbia is a place where mental health goes to die, why would I want to stick around?

  12. Am I the only one  

    who really loves it here? When I'm stressed or anxious about work or anything else, even when I'm coming home from Butler at 5 in the morning (sometimes later), I love it here. I love knowing that if I work hard, well in advance, I'll be okay even if a little spazzed on caffeine towards the end.

    I never knew that the people around me felt any different. To me, Columbia might be stressful, but it *is* a place where everyone wants to play frisbee on the lawns when the tarps come off in the spring, and where I *do* sit on the steps and take in a panorama view of campus. Students here *are* nice, friendly people with souls who have returned my wallet to public safety, who have stopped to ask me what was wrong in the bathroom when they saw me dazedly staring into the wall, and, when they heard my cousin had just died, tried to relate with a story about their uncle. I've had the support of my academic adviser who's listened to me cry about my grades leaving only to grab a box of tissues, and stops on the street to ask if i'm going to make an appointment to see her again. I've been lucky enough to have professors who haven't penalized me when I've fallen behind due to personal issues, who gave me a kind "I'm sorry that you're going through this, but you'll get through it,". I've had my RA speak to all of my suite about one of our suitemates, offering to go out of her way to have breakfast with him/her because they were going through a very low low. I'm fortunate enough to have at least two best friends who care and are always around when I need them.

    What I'm getting at here is that I haven't had a single experience that makes me believe this place (outside of the admin, because admittedly, bureaucracy is something I've never had to directly deal with here) is soulless. It's rough, yes, and I sometimes am paralysed with stress at work, but I've never hated this place.

    There have to be others out there who feel the same way.

    • completely agree  

      I am a senior and I have nothing but love for this school. I transfered from a big party school where everyone is supposed to have fun all the time and I was miserable. This is an incredible place to be if you don't try to make it into something else and you make sure to realize that while work is important, friends and a social life are too. There needs to be a balance and its not up to the University to find it. I think you will find that anyone who puts effort into the balance is extremely happy here.

      • hmm

        I don't think it's entirely fair to say that "anyone who puts effort into the balance" is happy. God knows I tried to balance things and still ended up depressed. Trying to do everything made me unhappy, but leaving one of them behind because it was too much threw me into depression. Certainly a part of this depression was throwing myself into work and refusing to have a social life, but I don't know that Columbia isn't culpable in my idea that this is what I needed to do. It's not just the Columbia administration directly, but the challenges it indirectly creates by not fostering a community in the right way. I know many students feel incredibly embraced by the community, but for every one student who feels that way I think there's three or four who don't.

      • Lulz, dude

        Take my major / schedule for four years and talk to me about balance. And yes, I chose my major / schedule, not the administration. My point: not only hasn't this school helped me along the way, it's actively screwed me over / hindered me in my efforts--academic and non-academic. So spare me the bullshit about "making an effort" and how "extremely happy" everyone is here, unless by "extremely happy" you mean "fucking manic."

  13. Um  

    I don't think this is the appropriate place for a "Columbia sucks/Columbia's been awesome!" debate. Truly.

    Thanks you Sarah and Wilfred for writing what you wrote, and for all of your work with the wellness project. You are inspiring.

  14. Herman Melville  

    Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses, - for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it - not in a set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation.

  15. a proposed solution  

    Smile at 20 strangers today. I bet you can, prove me right. Or I bet you can't, prove me wrong (whichever one works better for you).

    • :)  

      I love it when I get big smiles back!

    • Anonymous  

      I don't think being smiled at is the solution here, honestly. It's a cute sentiment and all, and it's something I do all the time-- I ask the students and security guards who swipe my ID how they're doing, and I say good morning with a smile to classmates I don't know that well and the facilities employees who come to clean my suite. When that security guard or student smiles widely as they swipe me in, or asks me how my workout was when they notice me come in wearing gym clothes and carrying a water bottle, it absolutely makes me feel good, and I appreciate it. But when I get back to my room and feel like I'm about to hyperventilate over the number of pages I have to write or the information I have to memorize, the smile I got walking in isn't enough. I think it's pretty clear that the problem ISN'T the students--clearly, the students care, deeply. It's the administration, and more broadly it's the university system in this country as a whole. It wasn't like this when my parents were college students, and it really doesn't have to be.

    • Anonymous

      can we be friendz?i try to do this everyday.

  16. y'all is a bunch of

    depressed people if you're sitting on here and trying to say that you're really happy and you love this school
    just saying

  17. Anonymous

    News flash: Columbia isn’t prison. If you don’t like it, leave! I am so sick of the “I hate everything” mantra that everyone seems to preach on these threads. The first thing I think of are the poor starry-eyed high schoolers reading Bwog obsessively (as I once did…yes), looking at these awful comments about how much Columbia sucks. The 50-comment threads on Bwog are NOT an accurate sample size for an institution with 6,000 undergrads. My experience at Columbia has been absolutely amazing. Yes, it is extremely expensive. Yes, we have 3 midterms per class instead of 1. Yes, booking rooms in Lerner is a total bitch. But people act like the administration isn’t even trying. Have we all forgotten how fortunate we are? We have this amazing core curriculum that exposes those of us who are total science nerds to classic literature and stresses the importance of the arts, our campus is this breathtaking surprise-pocket of beauty in New York Fucking City, we get free entry to some of the most beautiful and famous museums in the world, the opportunity to attend events and panels with renown speakers in all fields…for me, the list goes on. And I’ll admit I’ve always been a “glass is half full” kind of girl, but these positives have had a much more tangible affect on me than the more vague negatives that are hard to define and hard to fix. I love my friends here, and together we have accepted that it’s okay to be imperfect, because every single person is.

  18. Anonymous

    I'm not even going to finish reading these ridiculous comments...

    To go on a post with memorials of someone who passed away and whine about how horrible this university is and how hard your own lives are is just plain insulting. I didn't know Tina, but I find it terribly sad that instead of commemorating HER, dedicating this post to HER, the commenters have made it all about something else entirely. There are other forums to air your grievances, but this should not be one.

    • Not true  

      While they use Tina as a focus, these articles are about mental wellness, and as such this is a forum for discussing things that affect our mental well-being. To limit the scope of the discussion of these pieces to commemorating Tina would be missing their point.

  19. Anonymous

    Not to totally deflect from the issue at hand but...perhaps this is a good opportunity for people at Columbia to look around and see some good in what Barnard has done and continues to do over the years. I have my faults with the place for sure but one thing I can say is that I have never heard these words of disillusionment, defeat and mistrust from any of my classmates, and I've never felt them myself. Yes, it's true that Barnard doesn't have the prestige and acceptance rate of Columbia but in light of situations and issues like this, the overall community and support seem much more important.

    • Anonymous

      i should clarify by saying I am aware depression exists everywhere, of course at Barnard as well. I am speaking to the attitude towards the University and how it seems to have failed so many people here.

  20. alumnus

    I suffer from anxiety and depression. I've had suicidal thoughts. I suffered them at Columbia. I suffered them before Columbia. I suffer them now. My life has been degraded in a profound way by my illness. During my episodes, I become a different person. Inside an episode, my entire perspective and the way I think changes. It's like my whole mind become rewired. In the course of my life, I have accumulated many years of doing nothing because it's safer to withdraw/hide from life and not make decisions I'll regret with my rewired mind. When I'm out of an episode and back to my 'normal' mind, I can hardly identify with my anxious depressed self. It's like trying to remember a dream. I become disgusted with the time I've wasted. Every time, I resolve to try harder to live more productively, and I manage to do it for a while, until it happens again. It's a hard-wired chronic illness. It can be managed, perhaps, but based on my experience, I don't believe it can be cured. I've read multiple comments saying Tina sought professional help and was exceptionally open with her friends about her struggle. I'm very impressed by that. Her efforts to fight the enemy inside her seem extraordinary to me. The added shame, fear, pressure, vulnerability, and stress of putting myself out there to others ... I couldn't do it. As a result, I have lost all my friends by totally withdrawing during my episodes. It appears Tina was committed to fighting the enemy inside her. She was even a psych major. It's frightening she took these extraordinary steps to defend herself and it didn't work; the enemy inside her still killed her. Is it fair to blame Columbia for Tina's suicide? Well it's true that stressful environmental factors such as social and academic judgements, the need to earn grades with long-term implications, and high expectations do interact with the illness to trigger anxiety and depressive episodes. But at the same time, that's the nature of Columbia or any elite university. If we blame the Columbia environment for triggering Tina's suicidal ideation, then we can also blame Tina for knowingly placing herself at risk by exposing her illness to the Columbia environment. If that sounds harsh, know that I say it from a place of empathy - I placed myself at Columbia, too, and the same applies to me. For people like Tina and me, our abilities and expectations for ourselves are a double-edged sword. Like our high-achieving peers, we feel driven to realize our potential, succeed, and realize our ambitions. Our abilities are high enough that we successful achieve goals like acceptance into Columbia. However, it doesn't get easier. Each commencement to a higher level takes us into increasingly stressful environments, with higher expectations, more competition, higher stakes. We can't back down because our own abilities, expectations, and unwillingness to sell our lives short drive us forward. The double-edged sword is that the more we drive forward, the greater the risk of triggering our illness, and triggering it in a more serious way. Just extrapolating from my experience with suicidal thoughts, the only thing that may have been able to save Tina was for her to leave Columbia and confine herself to a low-stress environment, such as going home and being the stereotypical depressed person who stays in bed for months. Given Tina's abilities and high achievement, though, I doubt that abandoning her ambitions and disappointing her own expectations by giving up was an acceptable option. I emphasize that removing herself from Columbia wouldn't have been a cure, only that it may have kept her alive. But, if she dropped out of Columbia and ran home, then what would she have done with her life? From comments, Tina was fighting her illness hard to pursue her ambitions; I don't think she was willing to give up on her ambitions in order to appease her illness. If she refused to run, and she couldn't fight her illness anymore, then maybe that left her only one option. How do you convince someone like Tina that, for the sake of her illness, she must give up the life that she could achieve with her abilities?

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