I press my hands against the car window, watching the fog appear and recede along the outlines of my fingers.

I’m thinking — overthinking — as I often do. My dad glances at me.

“A penny for your thoughts?”

He always says that. I smile. I give the usual response: school, my future.

It is important to note here my dad is deaf, profoundly deaf. He proceeds to give me the usual lecture of how difficult it was for him to get through school, telling me that if he could get by in a world that was not made for him, and still isn’t, I would be just fine.

He grabs my hand, like he always does. I look back out the window and begin to wonder.

I often wonder what my life would be like if two things had not happened: the death of my aunt to suicide, and growing up in a deaf household. These two things have shaped the lenses through which I see the world, and my life as it is now at the University of Michigan.

What it has also informed me of are the things that must change on this campus.

If I look back two years ago to my freshman year, I find myself failing to understand what depression, and what mental illness as a whole, is. I see myself entering Michigan from a highly competitive high school, placing on myself enormous pressure to keep my grades consistent.

If I look closer, despite bouts of anxiety, mental health was never something talked about in the classroom. Even recognizing my own mental health seemed wrong — when there is no encouragement, no sustained conversation, no mention — naturally, these things become foreign, almost unwanted. 

To me, my anxiety and almost sub-human work ethic had left me believing that these things were necessary in order for me to make it. My model of what success was in this context was informed by two people: my father, who had made it against sharp odds to become the first deaf dentist in Michigan, and my aunt, a Harvard-educated, self-made woman teaching constitutional law. Thus, nothing had changed my freshman year — in fact, things had only gotten worse in terms of my anxiety. But, I had come out with the grades. Wasn’t that all that mattered? I had then left for a summer away from Michigan that would change everything.

While my job as a camp counselor for the summer was coming to a close, I received the news of the death of my aunt. A combination of rain and tears fell as I stood in the mountains of Pennsylvania, so too did my image of what I thought my aunt was. Everything that I had desired to be, and the picture of what I thought success was, shattered instantaneously. For someone who I believed had it all to be struggling with severe depression was unthinkable.

As time continues to pass, the questions still remain. And I know I will never know the answers.

But what I did know was that mental health was, up until that moment, something I had never thought about, and as I returned to Michigan for a particularly hard year ahead, mental health became the first thing on my mind.

When I think of mental health, two statistics surface. First, the fact that one in three college students will struggle with depression; second, that one’s mental health is the primary indicator of how we do in college, according to the American Psychological Association. These are statistics that are not without mention due to the fact that I have been on Housing Staff for two years. This opportunity has afforded me the space to be vulnerable, and to have real conversations with students about mental health in my role as an RA.

It is incorrect to say that most students have been given the spaces I have to facilitate these conversations; it is also incorrect to say that the University, as an institution, promotes conversations about mental health. When one is expected to be among the “leaders and best,” and we are valued in a capitalist society for our productivity, is it OK to not be on top of it all, all of the time?

I carry this frustration with me at Michigan, where there are some, but not enough, efforts being taken to create consistent and meaningful conversations regarding mental health as a whole.

If professors announced the first day of class that our mental health will be the number-one determinant of our performance at this University, how many of us would be willing to take a look into ourselves, or into the façade we have created as a society, to question why mental health isn’t acknowledged as the crucial part of our college experience that it is? If we are truly a campus grounded in reality, we must ask why mental health is not incorporated into our curriculum? I argue that it should be — and one crucial aspect is utilizing the classroom as a space to implement these conversations.

A student-led initiative that is already taking on these and other hard questions and searching for tangible solutions is the UM Student Forums on Campus Climate. These student forums will be happening on two separate occasions this week, and I challenge each student to attend to shape what Michigan’s campus can be.

It is not wrong, nor is it unnecessary, to recognize mental health problems for what they are: a reality. Among our countless conversations around inclusivity, we must not forget to include something so vital — yet so infrequently talked about — on this campus. We must work to make this campus one that recognizes the real, lived-in experiences of all of us. It is time for the façade of mental health as something superfluous to address to fall.

It is time, and it is long overdue, that we make this campus a world of our own.

The UM Student Forums on Campus Climate are student-led forums that are aiming to address campus climate issues. This month’s forums will focus on issues surrounding identity and inclusivity in the classroom setting. Attendees will be able to speak openly with their peers about experiences they have had in class that relate to social issues and their impact on classroom dynamics. From there, students will be able to share their ideas on and organize around how to make their classes safer and more inclusive spaces, specifically for those with marginalized identities. Students are welcome to attend one (or all) of the forums. These events are completely student-organized and will be facilitated by students as well. The events will occur Friday, Feb. 5, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Couzens Residence Hall, Room 1413; and Monday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Pierpont Commons in the Boulevard Room.

Nicole Khamis can be reached at nlkhamis@umich.edu

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