When the Rise of Mental Illness on Campus Is a Good Thing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our reader Becky Liddle, the Toronto psychologist we quoted previously, also made this excellent point in her email:

Haidt and Lukianoff mention the rise in percentage of students on campus with mental health problems, but they do not mention that much of that rise is not necessarily from an increase in society but rather is largely due to the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act and other protections for students with disabilities has allowed more students with mental health issues to stay and succeed in college.

For example, professors are now required to make allowances (reasonable accommodations) for a student with Bipolar II Disorder who could not complete an assignment on time due to a depressive episode. In prior generations, that bipolar student likely would have flunked out. Nowadays he or she gets accommodation and remains on campus, boosting the percentage of students with mental health problems, but also boosting the chances of a good and productive life.

This rise is actually a good thing: It means we are educating, instead of discarding, students with mental health challenges

Another reader talks about her own personal trauma and her ability to overcome it with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the method championed by Haidt and Lukianoff:

I’ve read the original article (and discussed it at length with all my close friends) and I’ve read all of the Notes. The one titled “Trigger Warning: Another Post About Trigger Warnings” hit home. I am a 62-year-old survivor of domestic violence by my spouse.

Thirty to forty years ago, I had plates of food thrown at me, I was thrown across rooms and kicked down stairs, I had a hunting rifle pointed at me in my home, along with many lesser offenses. The last straw was an attempted strangulation in my own bed.

I am also a beneficiary of CBT. At three different times in my life (late 30s, late 40s, mid 50s), I sought help from CBT therapists. Each time I stopped CBT, I thought I had worked through the trauma, the PTSD, and I was ready to face the world alone. Now and then, I would find myself amidst a discussion about domestic violence. Sometimes, but not always, a powerful reaction or flashback was triggered. When the flashbacks occurred too frequently, I sought CBT again. I learned that my irrational reactions meant I still had work to do.

About five years ago, I realized that talking about domestic violence no longer triggered even the least bit of anxiety. I felt I had finally put it behind me. (I do still have filled prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs. Just in case.)

In response to reader V. Reish, I would like to say that I am concerned (as a mother) about the younger generation’s seeming display of “more psychological weakness.” I’m glad that no one of ANY generation is “ostracized for seeking help” any more. However, Greg Lukianoff’s point about “problems of comfort” makes an entrance here. It seems that ongoing and readily available CBT might make “psychological weakness” too comfortable and the client less motivated to truly face the fear (tolerate triggers in safe situations), do the hard work, and put it behind them.

And, to psychologist Becky Liddle, I would like to point out that the classroom IS a safe situation, similar to the situations in which many of my flashbacks were triggered.

I agree with the anonymous Ivy League instructor who mentioned she was raped.

I would rather read…and have…words wrack my soul than see books…containing stories just a little like mine, vanish from college classrooms. These are books we must read. These are conversations we must have. Not in spite of traumatized students, but because of us.

And: “It’s not just that VP prevents students from having to think about what upsets them; it’s that it prevents the most privileged students from having to think about what should upset them.”

Growth is always uncomfortable, often painful. Nothing worth it is ever easy. College doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, everyone has to face the real world on his/her own. Life is difficult. Be emotionally prepared!

One more email from Jim Elliott, who recalls two spectacular stories on the subject of campus PC and plus ca change:

I found Lukianoff and Haidt’s essay a fantastic read. As a trained but not practicing clinical social worker, I found their use of CBT as an allegory for the use of trigger warnings inspired. I also agree wholeheartedly. Psychology Today has had a running theme on teaching young adults resilience since at least 2004 because of this very issue.

As a student at UC Davis from 1997-2001, I saw this coddling begin to take off. I spent a little less than two years on the staff of the university newspaper. On my first day at the paper, I found all of the newspaper stacks (they were distributed freely around campus) covered in ketchup with a sign claiming that the minority and LGBT community were decrying the paper’s “advocacy of violence” against them.

The paper’s crime? A popular satirical cartoon in the paper had run a strip wherein the hall on campus that housed the various African-American, Chicano, and so-forth studies programs was destroyed by an errant cruise missile that had been fired at Serbia. In the final frame, the chancellor was “quoted” as being relieved that nothing important had been destroyed.

The cartoon was a biting critique of the then-administration’s perceived lack of regard for such programs. The community’s response to that act of solidarity was to run wild-eyed, stage a sit-in, and demand justice for a “threat against their lives.” They did this, dramatically, by defacing every issue of the paper that day “with blood.”

The front-page story for that issue? A memorial for a student who had died. To this day, I wonder if any of those aggrieved students considered how their protest may have affected that girl’s friends and relatives.

* * *

Shortly after I departed the paper, David Horowitz (yes, that David Horowitz) ran a full-page advertisement “10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Are Wrong.” It was, of course, intended to be inflammatory. It was also deeply stupid, but apparently the campus crusade for happy fluffy feelings was not willing to let its idiocy stand without challenging it with their own monumental acts of stupidity. The editor-in-chief of the UC Berkeley student-run newspaper apologized for running the ad. I was told she subsequently had a nervous breakdown after receiving calls from various prominent newspaper editors that she had no business being in journalism for doing so. The paper I had just left also apologized.

David Horowitz was invited by the Campus Republicans to speak and he accepted. I gleefully attended, mostly because the hot Republican chick I had a crush on asked me to go, but I wanted to see if his speech was as stupid as his ad. (It was.)

As aggravating as Horowitz was, he did not, to my mind, hold a candle to the aggravation of student protestors, led by the LEAD “slate” (short for Leadership, Empowerment, Activism, and Determination—a political "party" within the campus environment that dominated the associated student union. Their demands—no free speech for racists—were appalling. Their rudeness was embarrassing.

It was a relief when they staged their “walk out” before the Q&A session, letting the hall go quiet so a tall, unassuming African-American student could take the mic and politely demolish Horowitz in front of those of us who remained. If those loudmouthed boors demanding their recompense had remained and simply listened, they would have seen how a real adult handles a loudmouthed buffoon like Horowitz.

I have to agree with Lukianoff and Haidt: What are we teaching our young adults? Life comes with acrimony. You disagree with co-workers, with friends, with family, even with your spouse (or should I say spouses, lest I offend the divorced and polyamorous among us)?

I fear that in a seemingly-noble quest to avoid causing pain, we’ve lost a crucial interpersonal skill: charity. We are losing, it seems to me, the ability to assume someone’s fault is ignorance and assume intentional aggression instead. It would, perhaps, behoove us all to remember Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

At least we’d all be a lot less anxious.