Commentary: Playing Our Hand


ELLING PEOPLE with depression to be grateful and happy sends a wrong message. For those who have had to leave the school due to mental health, this really hurts. Too many people at Andover aren’t happy, and the habits we create to get by aren’t good.

These are some of the general sentiments I got in response to an Instagram poll I conducted in the wake of last Wednesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM), following remarks by Jennifer Elliott ’94, Dean of Students and Residential Life, on alternative ways of thinking to combat negative feelings during Winter Term. The question I posed in the poll was “Do you think the administration at [Andover] is out of touch with the actual struggles and complaints of students here?” and I included an answer box for people to elaborate on their choices. The final results were an overwhelming majority of 89 percent “yes” to 11 percent “no.”

Of course, from my small sample size of the 338 people who saw the poll, this isn’t exactly an accurate reflection of the Andover student body. The responses I received, however, did reflect the conversations I heard amongst students throughout the day after the ASM, all examples of a common idea: the comments Elliott made detailing what she perceived to be nice and easy ways to lessen depression as a student on this campus were offensive to many, myself included. It’s one thing to provide solutions for the “winter blues”; however, it’s quite another to equate temporary feelings of tiredness with long-term struggles like depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

In my life, the people I know who are struggling the hardest with mental health are some of the most grateful, gracious, and loving human beings I know. It just goes to show that what you put into practice — like a social media cleanse or saying “I get” instead of “I have” — can have absolutely nothing to do with your state of mind. To paraphrase one of the responses to my poll, these are simply all habits people develop to get through life, and they don’t address the real problem: that students’ mental health is significantly worsened by what can often be an extremely taxing academic and social environment here on campus; for example, students often subconsciously determine their own and others’ self-worth according to academic success. 

The main issue that people around me seemed to have with the ASM was that Elliott spoke about how we have “dangerously and inappropriately coupled” success on this campus with high stress and self doubt, but failed to mention the school’s often large role in said coupling, especially for students with mental illnesses. Feelings of depression and anxiety were framed as something students were completely in control over and could fix with a simple change, instead of something for which students deserve support.

The message on Wednesday makes me wonder whether the adults around us actually understand what we’re going through. What stood out to  me the most about the ASM message was how brief comments heard from students in passing were presented as the basis for Elliott’s remedies, as if the state of students’ mental health as a whole could somehow be discerned by the day-to-day complaints of homework and lack of sleep. But it goes so much deeper than that, and for many people I talked to on social media following Elliott’s remarks, hearing such minimizing words reopened fresh wounds. Some students said it brought back to memory situations where they felt neglected by faculty while trying to cope with the stressful academic and social environment. Scenarios like these only worsen the general struggle of living with a mental illness, and it’s important to note that while the State of the Academy statistic accounts for students diagnosed with depression or anxiety, it does not take into account the much larger amount of students who have not been officially diagnosed for various reasons and still experience the same effects throughout their life.

Personally, this isn’t the first time I’ve been offended by a statement made or an idea promoted by “the administration” in my time at Andover. The days have gone by, however, and I’ve learned to minimize my reactions to these displays. An example of this is the public tribute to George H. W. Bush ’42, which was upsetting to me as an openly queer student, considering that Bush consistently upheld homophobic rhetoric during his time in the White House. I, however, have little to no power over which political figures the school chooses to promote. This institution is a business, after all, and I try not to take such things personally.

But what Elliott said at ASM hit me differently. Not even because I myself have to deal with depression specifically, because I don’t. In that moment, I was hearing her words through different ears — the ears of my friends, some of whom actively struggle with mental illnesses every single day of their life, and some of whom were not even present to hear Elliott’s remarks in person because they had either been forced by a governing body to withdraw from the school or driven to a point to where they chose to withdraw themselves. As someone who already has an ongoing tally of friends in the latter group despite only starting school here last year, it was impossible to not take Elliott’s seemingly cheery attitude to heart.

The statements Elliott made last Wednesday are symptoms of a much larger problem here on this campus — in her speech, the grittiness of dealing with mental health among students was sidestepped for the more presentable, friendly “get some more sleep every night! take a break from your phones!” message. It is dangerous to hear this minimizing narrative in the media, and even more so to hear it from someone who facilitates students. If the administration wants to help students be more “satisfied with life,” as Elliott said, then they must refrain from chalking our issues up to a simple lack of gratitude; too many people close to me have been hurt by that diminutive mindset for me to simply brush past it.

Chi Igbokwe is a two year Lower from Murfreesboro, Tenn. Contact the author at