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Observer Editorial: Time to focus on mental wellbeing

| Friday, April 8, 2016

Soon, across both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s campuses, students will be exhausting the last of their Flex Points and Munch Money on coffee, pulling all-nighters and engaging in other stress-inducing activities as we wind down another semester.

While these practices are more or less ubiquitous among the student bodies of the University and College, they are not necessarily conducive to establishing mental wellbeing.

Next week, Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-ND) will be hosting daily events and activities as part of Irish Peace of MiND, a week focused on raising awareness about students’ mental wellbeing. The week kicks off Monday morning with the distribution of Tell Me About Your Day bracelets, and it includes activities such as a student panel on mental health Monday evening, free massages in the Coleman-Morse Lounge on Tuesday, a study break with puppies Wednesday and a screening of “Mulan” on Thursday.

Does that sound familiar? Perhaps that’s because last October, NAMI-ND put on Irish State of MiND week, which — like Irish Peace of MiND week — aimed to encourage campus discussion surrounding mental health.

With the similarity in name and theme, it’s tempting to write off Irish Peace of MiND as a half-hearted second attempt at Irish State of MiND, the change in name from “state” to “peace” a mere game of semantics.

But to discount the upcoming Irish Peace of MiND week would be a disservice to us. Whereas Irish State of MiND focused more specifically on mental illness, Irish Peace of MiND takes a wider approach, examining the issue of mental health through the lens of everyday mental self-care and wellbeing. Rather than confronting the societal stigma placed on mental illness (a primary goal of Irish State of MiND), Irish Peace of MiND addresses attitudes and behaviors potentially harmful to our mental wellness and is important precisely because we — often-stressed, overworked and sleep-deprived college students — all too frequently engage in the types of self-destructive behaviors the week seeks to highlight and alleviate.

The high-achieving nature of the majority of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students tends to encourage a spirit of competitiveness and a culture of one-upping — a culture that at its worst can lead to an unhealthy obsession with outdoing one another’s accomplishments and achievements in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities. At times, this culture of competition is so pervasive it transforms would-be stress relievers into stress triggers, distorting beneficial activities to the point that they begin to feel like unmanageable burdens. The daily workout session turned weight-loss competition, the occasional sweet indulgence turned shameful excess — our hypercompetitive personalities that make us successful in school and in our other activities also have the capacity to sabotage our own peace of mind.

In addition to poisoning our harmless or even healthy behaviors, this competitive mindset can have an adverse effect, causing us to view destructive practices as something acceptable or even desirable. All-nighters are worn as badges of honor, while the amount of coffee we consume on any given day is flaunted as proof of our unyielding work ethic. We skip meals and classes in order to study; later, we’ll brag to our friends about how we “spent 18 consecutive hours in the library yesterday.” We internalize these behaviors — after all, isn’t everyone else doing the same things? — telling ourselves that next week, next semester, next year will be different, when we have a little more time.

But if we took a second to step back and evaluate our conduct, we would realize just how warped and unhealthy our mindset really is. It is not a sustainable lifestyle. We need to take time for ourselves, even if that’s doing something as simple as enjoying a short meal with a friend or taking 22 minutes to watch an episode of “Parks and Recreation.” No matter how little time we think we have, we need to make the time for self-care, and the only way we can do so is by viewing self-care as a priority. In some sense, our mental health is the most fragile of all: not making time now could prove disastrous in the long run.

Mental well-being is a matter that demands our full acknowledgment and attention, and for this reason we, as an editorial board, find Irish Peace of MiND week extremely important and applaud NAMI-ND for shining light on this important issue. Additionally, we find Saint Mary’s lack of a corresponding event week surprising. As a universal issue, mental health applies to all colleges and all campuses, and it is crucial that personal care is emphasized to all students, regardless of enrollment at Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s.

So while it may be fun to sing along to “Mulan” or play with puppies, try not to lose sight of the week’s true goals. After all, if we don’t take things seriously now, we risk allowing the situation to get truly out of hand.

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