New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
This is my sixth school year at Penn State, and already the second time that a graduating class has chosen Penn State Counseling & Psychological Services as their class gift.
I feel a mixture of emotions upon hearing this announcement. The first thought is one of deep appreciation for a shifting cultural value among young adults that places more importance on mental health care than generations that may have come before them. It is encouraging to me that the class of 2020 imagined a class gift that was different than so many past gifts which have so often been about beautifying a campus space rather than addressing a practical need within the student experience.
The next thought is a sense of sadness. Incorporated in this is the reality that mental health issues seem to continually be on the rise, especially among young adults.
More awareness of mental health needs, as well as a decrease in negative stigma about mental health are both good things. Providing more services is a necessary step, but I also cannot help but wonder if there are aspects of the current college experience that contribute to a number of causes of mental health fatigue. Increased student debt and pressure to financially succeed in this competitive world continues to add a weight that is visibly more apparent in each successive graduating class. Loneliness and lack of community, especially at large campuses like Penn State, seems to continue to be a very real part of many students’ lives. Social media lures young adults into a false sense that they are deeply connected when in reality those connections are often superficial and built on social pressures to measure up to unrealistic standards.
The class of 2016 also named CAPS as their class gift benefactor. A Daily Collegian article from the next fall reminded our community that even with the increased capacity for the CAPS office, many students were still facing long wait times for individual counseling. Anecdotally the students I interact with talk about the limitations of the campus support systems, and the unfortunate reality that our local psychological support networks are also operating beyond their capacity.
I remember feeling some similar thoughts when the 2017 graduating class named our local campus food bank, Lion’s Pantry, as the class gift recipient. On the one hand it was an incredible gesture of solidarity with the needs of our community, and on the other hand I found myself asking, how screwed up is our context if some students are going hungry and are in need of a campus food pantry? Likewise with the 2020 gift to CAPS, I appreciate this desire to be honoring the needs of our community, and also, how are we still so unable to meet the mental health needs of our student population?
We still have so much work to do to increase the capacity of spaces like these to respond to the ever-present psychological needs on college campuses. Today I want to express my gratitude to the soon-to-be class of 2020, may you carry this spirit of compassion for mental health services wherever you may go, and may we all strive to live in a world which works to eliminate the causes of mental health fatigue, as well as provides no shortage of resources for those who are in need of mental health needs.