OPINION: I am literally begging you to chill out

A bathtub full of bubbles with one foot extended out of the tub.
Graphic by Greta Long

Last semester, I went batshit crazy.

I don’t use this phrase lightly — claims of insanity have long been used as tools for demarcating certain bodies as inferior and enacting violence against women and people of color.

So, believe me when I say: Last semester, I went batshit crazy. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

I’ll give you the abridged version. My nervous breakdown was the culmination of four sudden deaths of various acquaintances in the span of one week, pre-existing mental health issues and unresolved trauma, family problems, my therapist unexpectedly getting a new job, a lack of access to psychiatric medication (Monsour had no openings for the last month of the semester), coupled with the self-imposed pressure of securing an impressive summer internship and the disorientingly stressful environment of Claremont after a relaxed study abroad experience.

Over the course of three months, I felt my mind slipping and my anxiety spiking. I developed obsessive, intrusive thoughts about my health and life and death, and by the end of the semester, I was having multiple panic attacks every day that left me exhausted and numb.

In the depths of my dissociative, anxiety-ridden haze, I had what might be the most important revelation of my undergraduate education: Oh my god, I need to chill out.

Chances are, if you’re a Pomona College student, you need to chill out, too.

When I started my first year at Pomona in 2016, I heard stories from upperclassmen about the “old Pomona,” a school that was characterized by its equal balance of laid-back fun and intellectual rigor. 

In recent years, however, the scales have clearly tipped toward the latter. As the acceptance rate continues its steady decline, parties on the Pomona campus have become fewer and farther between. 

It’s not uncommon to see students with laptops and books open in Frary, opting to study through meals instead of taking a 30-minute break. I often hear friends talk about how little sleep they’ve gotten, how they’ve committed to a million clubs and activities, how they wish they could slow down but they don’t know how. 

This is by design. 

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In a 2013 presentation on Pomona “brand strategy,” Mark Neustadt, principal of Neustadt Creative Marketing, stated that the Pomona narrative “revolve[d] around the theme of happiness, laid-backness, balance and ease,” and recommended that “the institution push back against this narrative of ease and replace it with one that is more consistent with faculty values and the long-term interests of the institution.”

In an April 2013 TSL article, Pomona’s then-Senior Director of Communications Mark Wood argued that Pomona’s rebranding would not necessarily change the college’s identity. But in that same month, Pomona announced that it “[would] rewrite its admissions materials based in part on the study conducted by marketing professional Mark Neustadt,” according to TSL.

Pomona is attracting increasingly driven, intelligent and talented individuals — and that’s fantastic. Over half of the students in the admitted class of 2023 are domestic students of color, and one in five are first-generation college students.

But Pomona isn’t adequately supporting these students once they arrive, as evidenced by last semester’s rally for increased mental health support and the administration’s failure to implement the allegedly promised Bridge program for first-generation, low-income students this year.

As a low-income student, imposter syndrome is real. I often feel like I have to try harder, do better and take on more activities and commitments to prove to myself and others that I deserve to be here.

In fact, it’s not just a feeling. According to data from The New York Times, a Pomona education doesn’t necessarily guarantee better outcomes for low-income students. Only “2 percent of students at Pomona came from a poor family but became a rich adult,” the data shows.

When I lost my mind last semester, I realized I’d been on an endless academic grind since I was 13. I’d set ridiculously high standards for myself, and by spreading myself thin across so many responsibilities, I had doomed myself to fail. 

I decided, then, that senior year would be my year of chilling out. That doesn’t mean giving up, or “slacking” — it means prioritizing my personal well-being, being honest with myself about what I can and can’t handle and only applying for things I genuinely want to do, not things I think I should do. 

This goes beyond “self-care.” During my breakdown, I tried lighting candles, meditating, exercising, putting on face masks and eating three meals a day. 

These things are bandaids, not cures. Real self-care requires an overall shift in mindset, a radical re-framing of one’s priorities. Therapy is equally as important as homework — if not more so. Period.

Real self-care is systemic; it’s only made possible through increased mental health funding, access and institutional transparency. 

In The Baffler, Laurie Penny writes, “the isolating ideology of wellness … persuades all us that if we are sick, sad and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance … there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response.”

The institution certainly wants us to prescribe to this “isolating ideology of wellness.” This month, Dean of Students Avis Hinkson sent an email to students announcing that we’ll have free access to the Calm app, which will “aid in your sleep, meditation and quieting your mind.”

You know what would really quiet my mind? A student health insurance plan that doesn’t decrease coverage and increase costs

I’m sharing my story because I’m worried about future Pomona students, ones for whom stories of the “old Pomona” might sound like distant fantasies, ones who might not realize that chilling out does not mean slacking off, and who might think that their struggles are solely “individual maladaptions.” 

So, please, if you related to any of this — I am literally begging you to chill out.

Schuyler Mitchell PO ’20 is from Raleigh, North Carolina. Hopefully, she is chilling out right now.

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