Macalester, someone from our community isn’t here anymore. Have you recognized that? Tragedy hit our campus two weeks ago. Matias Sosa-Wheelock died. When things like this happen, people respond by crying and weeping. They say that it is so sad. That things should have been different. The large institution of Macalester comes to a grinding halt for one day. People miss class. There’s a community gathering. Reverend Kelly Stone lights candles and says sad words. And then what?
Life continues on for most people. It goes back to “normal”–whatever that is. Those closest to the person might go home or take a leave of absence. They mourn in quiet and struggle through the semester but the rest of campus waits the required mourning period and then moves on.
I’m sick of that being the end of the story.
As a senior who has been living in the dorms and reading Brian Rosenberg’s emails for the past four years, this type of tragedy sadly is not new anymore. Three out of the past four years that I’ve been at Mac, I’ve received emails notifying me and my fellow classmates that someone is no longer with us. (If reading that previous sentence shocks you, reach out to an upperclassman, staff member or faculty to respectfully and appropriately learn about what happened in the past.)
These three deaths were not random. They didn’t just happen haphazardly on campus without warning and without reason. There’s a silent pattern that’s been repeating itself. While the circumstances of each death were individual and unique, that doesn’t make each case any more palatable or acceptable. There was pain and struggle and the coping mechanisms that came with that battle took a toll on them.
Sadly, these tragedies are the only ones that the campus at large hears about because the absolute worst situation happened. Having been a part of this community for so long, I’ve seen my fair share of struggling and coping. People aren’t OK and don’t tell others about it until things get really serious. Students search for purpose, happiness or an antidote for pain and they use a lot of unhealthy methods to try and obtain those things.
People keep being surprised by the sad things that happen on the campus. I feel awful saying this, but I’m not surprised. Mac’s environment and culture does not sustainably support its students’ general wellbeing. Tragic events are symptoms of a larger problem at Mac. We have a toxic culture of burnout and collapse that enables most people to keep up unhealthy habits until they are mentally and physically not capable any more.
There is an idea at Mac that most people are doing fine and only a small proportion of students are severely struggling. What if that’s not the case? What if most of us are just “high functioning” strugglers who are also a mess and the whole system is perpetuating this? What if the way we run our classrooms and the expectations we have for each other to become high achieving alumni with successful jobs and internships are misguided? Mac has a culture of going at 110% until one is completely exhausted and then collapsing and being completely burned out. This pattern plays itself out over and over and over again. It happens with academics: people go to office hours, study, cram, and stay up until two a.m. all semester, then crash over break and spend it all recovering. It happens with drinking: people drink alcohol with the aim of getting really drunk, then end up blacking out or being babysat/throwing up for the rest of the night. It happens with mental health: people think they can deal with mental health issues on their own or with the help of their friends until all of a sudden things get out of hand and life seems really overwhelming.
Macalester culture is toxic. We take the values given to us by our society around us (e.g. to be successful, high-achieving, academic etc.) and turn them into oppressive mantras that define and overwhelm our lives. We live our lives furiously in a state of constant homework and binge-drinking while having conversations that consist wholly of “How are you?”
“Busy, how about you?”
“Same, can’t wait for [insert next-closest break].”
We declare multiple majors, minors and concentrations for ourselves, juggle multiple orgs, classes and work and constantly discuss how little sleep we got. We do all these things and then yell the words “take care of yourself” at each other and expect that to solve things.
Self care isn’t a Cafe Mac dessert or binge-watching Netflix. Self care is having the guts to go talk to a professor about how you’ve gotten so behind in class and don’t know what’s going on — multiple times. Self care is only having one major and nothing else. Self care is engaging in deep, meaningful conversations with people in your life. Self care is taking time to play and allow yourself a half a day of creative expression instead of constantly working on homework all weekend.
In sum, self care is about taking everything in moderation, doing things that we ought to do for ourselves (not just what we want to do for ourselves), and re-orienting our values from success and high achievement to personal and community health.
How do these ideas relate to the sad events from two weeks ago? When people proactively take care of themselves, they can adjust to crises and help others as well as themselves. They have the energy to connect and provide each other the support and connection that so many of us seek. People who are conscious of their energy levels, who are planning how to live/study sustainably for the next week instead of living day-to-day, can budget energy and emotions much better. It also means that support services such as the Health and Wellness Center (HWC) and Residential Life can step in to fully strengthen and support those who do need a little bit of extra help. People involved in these departments can go beyond the status quo and put extra time and energy into the community.
When people don’t take care of themselves, they force themselves to the brink of collapse and burn out. The community that is supposed to comfort and encourage those who are exhausted cannot function fully — since we are all exhausted. Each semester is lived as a series of small crises that hopefully do not spiral out of control. At that point, the only thing Residential Life and HWC can do is damage control. They become last ditch efforts to prevent the worst case scenarios. If such support people arrive in time, their only goal is to make sure everyone is alive and safe so that dire events have a “happy ending.” Meanwhile the general Macalester student goes around none the wiser, oblivious to the unsustainable habits and behaviors we are all engaging in.
We need to wake up and look at the community around us. We cannot buy into the isolating, burnout mentality. We need to realize that there is a pattern of people who are not ok on this campus, and we also need to realize that maybe it’s not just a “them” problem. Maybe we’re all not ok, some of us are just better at being high-functioning, not-ok people.
Here are some things you can do. They are by no means exhaustive and not every suggestion is right for every person — use them as a jumping off point. Reach out to others when you are not doing ok. Actively ask people how they are doing and create spaces where it would be alright for someone to voice that they are not ok. Choose sleep over homework sometimes. Declare only one major. Don’t study abroad. Take time to play or be creative instead of constantly working. Value connection over schedules. Recognize the pressure that society puts upon your life to be successful, high-achieving. etc., but don’t let those values define you. Become someone who is not willing to sacrifice their emotional, mental and physical health semester after semester.
Macalester is a community and we need to recognize that our community is not doing so great. We’re not going to get better just by hiring more support staff. While hiring more counselors at the HWC would be absolutely wonderful and useful (it’s also something the administration already did last year), it’s not the going to solve our deeper problem. We’re only truly going to get better if we begin reaching out to give each other the support and human connection we need while actively rejecting the idea of burnout culture.
Listen up everyone. Mac is not OK and we need to do something.