Education and mental health
I write about mental health a lot, full disclosure because my mental health is bad on a good day. I’ve found little respite from the depression, PTSD, etc. via pharmacological means or through therapy. I still try, but the results are the same and what’s that saying about crazy meaning trying the same thing and expecting a different result? In any case, there are few things in this world that tests my mental health like education. Because the system is broken and there’s nothing that can be done.
By us at least. The people in power, the ones who could easily fix this issue choose not to do a damned thing about it, because why bother? I think part of it is the whole we had it done to us so why not do it to our students mentality. Like we shouldn’t want better for future generations because our experiences suck. I want all student debt to be eliminated. I have no student debt (thanks in part to my military service), it wouldn’t help me in the slightest, but I still feel sympathy for people who will spend the majority, if not all, of their lives stuck in debt because they were told the only way out is an education.
You may be wondering why, if my mental health is so fragile, I would go into research and push to get my PhD. Well part of that is the desire to learn, to figure things out. I like puzzles and problem solving, I always have even as a kid. Taking things apart, building something new, it’s always been a calming (albeit sometimes frustrating) experience. That is the part I focus on most of the time when I discuss my research, wanting to help people drives me forward when I want to quit or when I don’t think I’m good enough. The other part of wanting to help people though, is the desire to help students.
I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the people in power. I don’t expect to have my name stuck on a wall full of white dudes (the white dude wall, anyone who’s walked a college campus has seen one), but even small changes that can occur in the microscape of academia can have big impacts over the course of years. That’s my hope at least. I want to help the next generation so that when one of them inevitably ends up in a position of power, they won’t forget that the system doesn’t have to remain the way it is. It can and should be thoroughly dismantled and replaced.
Even now, while I’m a simple student with no power to do much of anything, I can mentor and pass my experience as someone who needs the system changed to my mentees. To be blunt, I’m an average student. On paper, despite my best efforts, I’m not exceptional and that counts for a lot to future employers (sad, right?!). However, the people I mentor, like Kay for example (here) could very well be in a position of power because they are exceptional students and have the potential to be exceptional leaders. So it’s my effort to effect change without being the direct cause of it. I’m okay with this arrangement and I look forward to all the brilliant people I’ve helped do amazing things.
Don’t get me wrong, if I were able to be in a position of power to make the changes I wanted to see, I would do it in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t care how detrimental it was to my mental or physical health, I would jump at the chance. The problem isn’t my want or effort, it’s the system doing its thing keeping me from becoming that person. There are barriers keeping me from reaching that place, partly because of my performance as a student in my early years. It doesn’t matter to the system that I tried to kill myself, what matters is I let my grades slip afterwards. That doesn’t show the educational horsepower that is the currency for success.
That is the real problem though, the system doesn’t care where we start or our path, it judges us by our academic performance. Thus someone coming from a wealthy family, who had tutors growing up, or opportunities that the rest of us couldn’t have, is in a better place to perform well in school than someone like me for example who spent almost ten years in undergrad trying to adjust to being a civilian again and coming to terms with the fact that I had some bad PTSD and a whole lot of other mental and physical issues.
To be clear I’m not advocating for education to be easy. Learning is hard and it should be a challenge. However, education should be about lifting people up, not subjecting them to torture to see who comes out the other side. Schools should be encouraging learning and providing help to those who need it. You shouldn’t need to be pushed to the breaking point to demonstrate your willingness to learn, it should be a given if you bother to do the work to ask for help. But that’s not how the system works, it makes you jump through hoops even for basic accommodations, challenges those accommodations, and on occasion outright ignores them. ASK ME HOW I KNOW!
So yes, I’m pushing my way through a system who would rather see me dead than offer me help, but I’m doing it for that off chance that I can help future generations. Because unlike the people in power, I would rather see life easier for the people who came after me. Unfortunately, those people may not even be aware that the system is broken or needs changing. Because the system rewards them, they are the ones who are already succeeding without the help, without needing support, and they are the ones placed into power.
I’m hoping that by doing my little part, we can break that cycle. Because if the current system wants me dead then I’m going to try to kill it first. Spite is a great motivator.
Back when I was a kid, a petty but perennial argument between me and my parents was “who gets the last chair.” If guests came and there wasn’t enough seating in the living room, I was always the person who had to sit on the floor or on a beanbag or whatever. And I thought we should take turns. It was a tiny thing to be mad over, but to me it felt symbolic of something nasty: they were treating me as a less important human being just because I was young. And my mom’s stock response to my complaints was, “When you’re grown up and have children of your own, then you can always have the chair and make them sit on the floor.”
I never thought it was a good answer.
But it is, maybe, another little illustration of the same attitude you’re noticing. “I had a bad time, so you can too. I eventually got on top, and that means I deserve to be on top. Accept the fact that you are being eaten, because someday you might be the one who gets to eat people.”
I read a book (Change of Heart, by Nick Cooney) which described something called the “Just World Hypothesis.” People (or at least some people) have a cognitive bias toward assuming that the universe as it currently exists is just fine. This is one of the places victim-blaming comes from. To maintain their belief that nothing is wrong, they decide suffering is either deserved or unimportant or somehow beneficial.
I like meritocracy, but I can also accept that we haven’t fully achieved one; people can work hard, be responsible, and sink anyway. I want the weak and the sick and the disadvantaged to make it. I don’t always know the best way to ensure they do. But one of the key features of a healthy society is that it doesn’t just weed those people out; it doesn’t treat natural selection as a moral good. Keep fighting. Don’t die.
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April 10, 2022 at 2:33 pm
Yeah, that’s frustrating. I don’t understand the thought process people have to treat kids as less than adults. I never understood that one either and I think that’s a great example of the kind of attitude I’m talking about.
Adult in my case would just be someone who has a mature career while the “children” would be the early career researcher. I’m sure the system will change or it will collapse on itself, I’m hoping for the former since that would happen sooner than the latter, but I hope to be around long enough to see it happen. As always, thank you for the support and insights!
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April 11, 2022 at 8:03 pm