Opinion: Burwell’s “Generation Stress” essay demonstrates an out-of-touch, idealistic view of a campus-wide epidemic
Essay acknowledges university students’ struggle but does not identify ways to make real change
The November/December 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs features University President Sylvia Burwell’s “Generation Stress,” an essay discussing factors that contribute to rising stress- induced depression and anxiety among college students.
While the essay covers a range of issues from school shootings to the economy, it seems to lack an understanding of the average college student’s day and how Burwell’s idealistic suggestions to help students could backfire. To find solutions to these issues, universities must look past the surface and actually put proposals into action.
The essay recognizes that the international image of the U.S. educational system is increasingly becoming one that includes widespread violence and that university administrators and faculty must be aware of this added tension and how it differs from the more open-ended Cold War-era threats they faced. As an international student, my parents constantly worry about gun violence.
In fact, when I mentioned that another student was harshly criticizing something I posted on Facebook, my parents panicked and told me to ignore it for fear of becoming a target. Hence, I expected AU’s administration to revisit the AU Alert system programming as a proactive precautionary measure. Unfortunately, it took the threat of an actual “armed intruder” coming near campus for this system to improve and work effectively.
In the essay, Burwell discuss the economic stress of rising tuition and an unforgiving economy. University expenses are tremendous and students do whatever they can to save money, including skipping meals. Yet, at her own university, AU Central, which handles financial aid matters, seems to be constantly unaccommodating and grants are minimal.
Burwell states, “today’s young adults seem to arrive at college with less resiliency and a lower appetite for risk and failure.” This statement is offensive. College students like myself do not arrive with a lower drive. We arrive with no other option but success.
We are constantly bombarded with curated images of perfection on social media, economic hardship, etc. so there is no room for failure. I recall toiling away in high school, immersing myself in extracurriculars and SAT exams on top of my rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. I did this so I could get into a good university.
The apparent lack of “resilience” is actually exhaustion. We have been faced with an ultimatum: succeed or give up. We are living in an unknown place filled with the risks that Washington, D.C. presents, a place where sexual assault, hate crimes and peer pressure runs rampant. For some of us, we do this all while knowing that we will be spending the rest of our lives paying off our accumulated student debt.
Burwell compares the campus mental health crisis to Ebola, a virus that killed scores of people and manifested in a way that cannot even compare to this issue.The Ebola virus killed over 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. To compare a virus that triggered an international health crisis and could quickly and violently wipe out humanity is not only ludicrous but incredibly insensitive. Arguing that stress-induced anxiety and depression is equivalent to scores of people being quarantined during their final days as their body succumb to this horrific disease is privileged and classist.
There were and are limited resources and available research to fight Ebola, on top of the fact that being exposed to the virus to treat victims is risky. Depression and anxiety are, of course, also serious health issues. But they are not transferred through fluid contact. They do not make the body violently convulse. And most of all, it can be treated if people are willing to provide the right resources, guidance and support.
Burwell proposes that prevention, detection and treatment strategies she used during the Ebola outbreak as Secretary of Health and Human Services can be used to combat mental health issues. Yet, the introduction of AUx classes as a preventative measure has received more criticism than praise. The second step in the solution process, detection, suggests that professors micromanage students to make sure they are downloading assignments and attending class. And lastly, treatment for mental health issues is evidently limited.
While this proposed solution has valid claims and intentions, the essay does not actually speak about how tuition could be reduced, ways in which students could save money or systematic training that could be offered to reduce campus sexual assault -- all of which are issues that play a crucial role in students’ mental health. In addition, international students are immersed in a completely new culture and face issues adjusting to that as well, with inadequate support from professors or the administration.
Offering more free sessions at the counselling center would help students cope much more than dogs on the quad would. Increasing the number of safe spaces, hiring more professors of color and listening to students of color would increase the sense of community this campus lacks. And finally, administrations need to know that students are watching them, and they know that this essay acknowledges this health crisis but does not do much to fix it. Taking meaningful action does.
Sonikka Loganathan is a senior in the School of Communication and assistant opinion editor for The Eagle.