Letter to the Editor: An open letter on the state of student mental health at UWL


Photo taken by Sophie Byrne.

Sophie Byrne, Guest Contributor

[CONTENT WARNING: mental health; depression & anxiety; reference to substance abuse, body dysmorphia, suicide;]

There is a mental health epidemic at UWL. I speak for myself when I say that I am hurting, overwhelmed, confused, fumbling, and purely exhausted. But the fact is that I don’t just speak for myself. I don’t know another student at this university who isn’t experiencing the same things.

Being a college student in and of itself is a uniquely transformative experience, even under normal circumstances. We are young adults who have only recently come into newfound independence—which also comes with responsibilities, commitments, challenges, and growing pains that are nearly impossible to expect or prepare for…and we’re not supposed to be prepared for them. After all, this is an explorative and discovery-driven period of our lives. We have more opportunity now to be fluid and changing than we likely ever have or will. And this is beautiful, but it’s also beastly…because it means that so few of us have constants in our lives. Most of us are distanced from our families, which can be a perfectly healthy thing and a necessary thing if we are to grow. But this also means that so many of us lack strong foundations and support systems. Luckily campus life lends itself to forming social connections, but that by no means guarantees that everyone will find friends who enrich them, support them, listen to them, or allow them to be their true self. Even if you are lucky enough to have friends who do this for you, it doesn’t mean that will be enough.

Students are also burdened with the knowledge that in a few short years we’re going to be catapulted into another, even more, terrifying level of adulthood. Right now, society tells us that we need to be planning, preparing, and planting seeds that will bloom into careers and families and successes and dreams come true. But how can we do that when there is so, so much uncertainty about our future? There is generational trauma taking place every day, stamping itself on all those who don’t know if they’re going to inherit an economy that allows them to meet their basic needs or to afford a down payment on a home or make car payments. Those same people fear inheriting a planet that is dying, and some of them don’t even want to bring kids into a society that is slowly but surely sabotaging itself and leaving less and less for its great-grandchildren.

We as a generation have also grown up with constant access to technology, and with that comes constant access to news and content. We are far, far too aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world, and this has debilitated our ability to live in the moment or be satisfied with our own lives. Our attention spans have been all but crippled. Our brains are constantly grasping for straws, for new sources of bite-sized information to focus on for five or ten seconds. With these environmental factors that all of us have grown up surrounded by, it’s no surprise that anxiety, depression, and ADHD are uncommonly evident in our generation. We have no reassurance of…anything, really.

This is the experience that UWL students were always going to have, but a little over a year ago we were all thrown another massive curveball. On top of everything else, we ended up in a pandemic. I don’t need to go into how COVID-19 has negatively impacted all of us because that is an inter-generational experience that we are all familiar with by now. I also won’t pretend to understand the unimaginable stress of trying to teach students from behind a camera or through a keyboard rather than face to face in a classroom. But being on the learning side of online classes is unique. Mass transition to remote learning has been a necessary evil, but we can’t ignore that it has radically changed education as we know it. The vast majority of UWL students have minimal experience with online learning, let alone teaching themselves content or building their own course schedules. Many students’ learning styles are not even congruent with online learning. If you’re neurodivergent, or if you learn in more hands-on ways, or you need to constantly be asking questions, or you need to see something happen to imitate it or teach yourself, then online learning is a nearly insurmountable mountain. Remote learning also creates barriers between students and instructors. For many students, instructors are their only touchpoints to UWL as an institution…and remote learning, especially in big classes, makes those touchpoints fuzzy and muddled. As if our lives weren’t already dictated by fluctuating (at best) guidelines, online learning cost so many of us even the illusion of structure on which to rely upon.

These factors, put together, can only lead to the utter deterioration of mental health. UWL has tried, and I can see that. In light of these extenuating circumstances, the administration has encouraged faculty to be as flexible as possible with students. And many, many instructors have done this to their best ability. The counseling and testing center is available, and its contact information is made very accessible. Unfortunately, neither of these is enough. The decision to remove spring break is a good example. It was made with the best intention; the university didn’t want to welcome COVID-19 by giving everyone the perfect opportunity to travel and spread the virus. But this decision did not have the impact it was meant to have, and I strongly believe that if our administration put more emphasis on mental health, they would have foreseen that. It’s unrealistic and unwise to expect students to perform well with fifteen weeks of uninterrupted academic exertion. I understand the desire to not interrupt or modify course schedules, or to remove content…but the problem is that forcing students to learn with no break demolishes our ability to learn in productive and healthy ways. And, worse still, when you know that there’s no break in sight for weeks upon weeks, it can make your morale and energy wear thin even faster. We need a larger conversation to occur, and we need a greater sensibility to how education must evolve with its students. We need students to feel comfortable expressing that they’re not okay, or that they’re struggling, or simply that they need a break. We need to put an emphasis, as an institution and as a community, on mental health.

Learning and academia cannot come at the expense of our mental health because how in the world are we supposed to learn anything, retain information, or become self-actualized individuals who contribute to this world when we can’t even bring ourselves to get out of bed? When some professors say, “that’s a shame,” when we say we’re not doing so hot? When our minimum wage jobs barely pay us enough to make rent and groceries? When we haven’t seen loved ones for months and months because we’re a danger to them? When we can’t even focus on one small task for more than sixty seconds at a time because our brains feel just as chaotic as the world around us? When we hate our bodies because social media tells us we need to be conventionally attractive to be worth anything? When we don’t even have the time to prioritize the food we’re putting in our bodies, or make nutritious meals? When our landlords ignore that the faucet is spewing toxic water, or a broken window lets in sub-zero temperatures? When we’re so close to falling apart and the only reason we don’t is that we’re busy just keeping our friends afloat? When we do exactly what we’re supposed to and reach out for help from the counseling center…but get told there’s no room and to come back in three weeks? When we feel like we can’t relate to the people around us, and everything just seems…empty? When we’re trying so, so hard to teach ourselves because failure isn’t an option? When we genuinely love a professor so much, and we see them trying their best to help, and it kills us to think about disappointing them? When our grades can’t fall because scholarships pay our tuition? When we’re resorting to cheating but who cares because nothing feels real right now anyway? When we can’t even vent to our own families or friends because everyone else is falling apart too and you don’t want to burden anyone with your own struggles? When sometimes being drunk or high or both is the only thing that makes us feel okay because for a few hours we can just forget about reality? When we hate ourselves for relying on our partners for support because it’s not their job to pick us up every time we fall? When it feels like there’s absolutely nothing to do but work, school, and workout? When we barely know our professors but what’s the point of reaching out over email or phone or office hours when that doesn’t replace real interaction and we all know it? When it feels like we’re not learning anything? When the only way we can get through a day is just by distracting ourselves from…everything?

There is a chasm separating UWL students from faculty and administration. It’s a chasm filled with Zoom meetings, asynchronous classes, generational differences, a lack of understanding and communication, removal from the realities of students’ lives and the revolving door of responsibilities that we face constantly, and an innocent kind of ignorance. I believe that most instructors want to see their students succeed, and I’ve seen the evidence of it firsthand. But even if they’re trying their very best (and struggling just like us), how can they possibly help us succeed when they have such little hope of understanding where we’re coming from?

In an effort to close this chasm, I have tried to put our experience as students into words. I have tried to communicate what none of us really can, and I have tried to see a better future. But I am just one student, and there’s only so much I can do. I am begging UWL to help realize this future, for all of us. I am begging UWL to do more. We need extensive mental health training for all faculty, we need a higher level of awareness for the inequities and struggles that students face, we need a counseling center that can help more than just a fraction of the students who need it, and most of all we need transparency. We need to stop pretending like it’s okay to put mental health on the back burner and forget about it until it boils over. The catalyst for this conversation should not have been a student taking their own life…but it was, and it is. It would be inappropriate and disrespectful to that student’s memory to assume that UWL was in any way responsible, or that it was related to any of the factors that I’ve just discussed. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I now live in constant fear of waking up and discovering that one of my peers…just couldn’t take it anymore. No professor wants to wake up and find out they have one less student in their class. No one in our community—be it student, faculty, or staff—deserves to feel that fear. So please, please. Hear us, see us, and do more.

Letters to the Editor do not reflect the beliefs or values of The Racquet Press. This Letter to the Editor is meant to be forwarded and shared to spread awareness on mental health conditions amongst students at UWL.