(Trigger warning: self-harm)
To the Editor:
Last Wednesday I was at the pharmacy getting my Prozac filled — not downtown at CVS, but at home, on my leave of absence. Meanwhile, my friends attended All-School Meeting (which I watched on MediaSpace), led by Jennifer Elliott ’94, Dean of Students and Residential Life.
But, I want to start this article on another Wednesday: May 23, 2018, the first day I really felt could be my last. I was on the Great Lawn, living “peak Andover,” counting my blessings. But I felt empty. I tried to be grateful for everything I saw. I didn’t deserve any of it.
I didn’t talk to anyone. I sat on the hardwood floor of my single room, carving patterns into my left wrist and my right thigh with a red thumbtack, hoping someone would see my pain. I put on a sweatshirt, in 85-degree weather, because, on second thought, I was ashamed of the pain. I had a panic attack when friends suggested Sykes. I wondered what I’d say when counselors asked why I did it. I wracked my brain for reasons I’d deserve their attention. I was afraid they’d tell me to count my blessings again.
I learned later that the DSM-5, the leading classifier of mental disorders, characterizes major depressive disorder by an “inability to feel pleasure.” Cognitive distortions. Not wanting to feel better because we don’t deserve to. When asked to “choose joy,” we weren’t just invalidated — we were asked to do the impossible.
Behavioral therapies feature gratitude as just one piece of the puzzle. When clinical illness entered the dialogue, Elliott’s oversimplification became more irresponsible than well-intentioned. The administration’s use of comparatives (“happier”) and Hallmark-friendly phrasing emphasizes an equality of outcome without equitable supports that meet students at their emotional baselines.
Telling us what to feel without regard for how we feel encourages us to hide our issues and keep pace until, one day, we find ourselves left behind. The problem isn’t that our inability to apply this advice says there’s something wrong with us. The problem is that telling us who we should be targets not our behaviors (which we can adjust), but who we are. Shame incentivizes against seeking help; we don’t “have” to compromise mental health to blend in, we “get” to. Posing gratitude as a cure-all erases the hardships that formed the personal identities we are encouraged to celebrate.
I was anxious to write this article. I then realized I can trace my shame to words just like those spoken last Wednesday. I didn’t believe I had mental health problems. I didn’t believe I deserved help. But depression is manageable when treated properly. The Andover community — my peers — deserve to be validated and cared for.
I will end on a grateful note: I’m grateful for friends who make me smile, especially those who sit with me when I’m still depressed afterwards. I’m grateful for the people pushed me toward the help I didn’t think I deserved. I’m grateful for the students who submitted articles alongside me, and for those who will continue to demand change.