Mental Health on Small Liberal Arts Campuses—Answering the Why

Mental health is a word that’s been getting a lot more stardom these days on liberal arts campuses. In response, there have been a lot of people questioning why there has been such a spike in mental health conversations, or even going as far to question the reality of it all—

“I feel like people are just being over dramatic.” “The world is getting to sensitive.” “Isn’t this just the world we live in now?”

So today I would like to address these questions from both my own perspective of someone who has experienced mental health issues to that of someone who has witnessed them from the outside, with the hope of answering the big question of why.  

The Pressure to Succeed

It’s no surprise that students at small liberal arts schools are over committed. If you aren’t in Greek life, volunteer, have a job, play a sport, participate in a club, and have at least a 3.0 GPA—do you even go to a liberal arts school?

Us liberal artsers not only want to do everything, but we feel the need to excel at everything as well. Coming from a New England prep school, I’ve seen this communal need to over-achieve before. You’ve been accepted to this exclusive, prestigious high school, and now the expectation is that you will continue into an exclusive, prestigious college, and then a prestigious, exclusive job. It’s an endless cycle of building that perfect application that lands you that perfect position, and it all starts once you’ve entered that “perfect” institution.

The problem here is that it is unlikely to excel at all these different areas and continue to eat, sleep and socialize like a normal human being at the same time. Yet, the expectation is still there, and when you don’t meet those expectations, you feel like a failure. This failure leads to self-doubt that only continues to harm a pre-existing condition of mental health, or produces a situational condition of anxiety or depression.

Social Stresses

A small liberal arts school is exactly what it says it is: small. The average enrollment size is around 2000 students, which isn’t a huge difference when the average public high school enrolls around 1000 students. While in comparison, most students attend a large college, where over 30,000 students are enrolled.

So what does this mean? It means that some problems that you face in high school end up following you to college, like cliques, rumors and perhaps a lack of diversity. And when you’ve been told all that you’re going to meet your friends for life in college, and a perfect social circle doesn’t lay out, you can feel, once again, like a failure.

Your social life can make or break a semester. As humans, we are social beings, and we feed off social interaction. So if we feel like we’re not fulfilling that need, it can cause a lot of extra, unnecessary stress.

Technology Troubles

Not specific to liberal arts campuses, social media has become a main source of FOMO and questions of self-existence.

It’s not a surprise that mostly everyone puts their best face forward on social media. Which is great, except for the fact that it creates this image that one’s life is always that “best face,” when in reality, that’s impossible—life is a series of ups and downs. However, social media makes the viewer feel that everyone else’s life is perfect, so when their own life isn’t, they again feel a sense of failure.

Additionally, social media can create a relationship of us vs. them. Seeing a group of friends having fun on SnapChat when you didn’t get the invite can create a sense of exclusion and hurtfulness. However, this exclusion may not have been intentional, yet the clear divide between you and them can create this feeling none the less.

Social media has its perks, but it doesn’t help the social stresses presented above, whether you’re on a small liberal arts campus or not.

Overall, with the pressure to succeed and the additions of social stresses, along with the general issues of modern day technological advances, feelings of self-doubt and failure can arise and strongly affect our mental health as students.

Obviously, this is an opinionated piece and I do not have all the resources available to present hard data, but I do have my own personal experience at a liberal arts school, which I think is just as important as any survey.  Likewise, there are many more factors that affect student’s mental health on college campuses that I have not addressed. However, I write this article in hope that I can reach one reader who can relate to this article and realize that they are not alone, and that any problems they may be facing with their mental health is real and justified.

Ultimately, I hope that once we can address the reason of why we are having this problem, we can finally focus on the how; how can we better tend to our mental health on liberal arts campuses? How can we spread awareness? How can we end the stigma? But first and foremost, we must address the why.