Inside the Holy Cross Mental Health Crisis: A Letter to Higher-Ups

*TW: Mental health, suicide, depression, anxiety

Anna Lee ’24

Chief Opinions Editor

The way one friend put it was, “Sometimes I can barely make myself shower.” We had been discussing our mental health since returning to the College of the Holy Cross a few weeks ago. As we compared our experiences, we drew similarities across our majors, schedules, and commitments. Though we had different goals for our four years at Holy Cross, we shared similar anxieties and obsessions about our futures: is it normal to be feeling this amount of pressure, chronically unable to get out of bed in the morning or pay attention in class? 

To answer this question bluntly: No. 

Stress at Holy Cross is nothing new—the minimum expectation is set at a high standard and students are expected to meet it. But there’s an important difference between reasonable stress and concerning stress: the former motivates students, whereas the latter may be a catalyst for mental health concerns, intrusive thoughts, or tragedy. To put it more technically, the JED Foundation (a non-profit organization dedicated to helping teens and young adults with mental health) suggests that students may be in need of help when stress “interferes with our ability to get things done, relationships, and overall quality of life” (Understanding Stress). In the time I’ve been here, I fear students are so far removed from reasonable stress that it’s affecting their ability to care and clean after themselves. 

Other parts of Holy Cross life, like the community-based atmosphere and social events, have also receded into the background. When I was applying to Holy Cross, alumni raved about their four years and the lifelong memories and friends they made. School was stressful, sure, but it was tempered by the “fun” part of college. Conversely, a large chunk of my network who currently attend the College have considered dropping out of college completely, transferring, or are chronically unhappy. This is not to say struggling in college and having fun are mutually exclusive, but I worry that the overall experiences of current students will be far less exciting than students preceding us. 

Part of the change in college culture can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed restrictions on event planning and socializing. But the other part of this shift is that college culture as a whole no longer allows for that much slack or relaxation. Breaks are spent in the library, students are encouraged to go to graduate school because a bachelor’s degree is no longer sufficient in this job market, and discussions about mental health, while more welcome than in decades past, are not prioritized. As the College begins to put academic performance before mental well-being, students may start to orient the rest of their lives around the same message. 

There are also far more external distractions that affect this generation: climate change, an entry-level job market in shambles, a national racial reckoning, and fraught domestic and international relations. From administrations’ side, there is a generational shield that allows them to neglect these external factors (considering most people in administration are part of older generations and therefore different external circumstances). So, when accounting for these global crises, it understandably becomes almost impossible for students—many of whom are more in the tail-end of adolescence than early adulthood—to focus in class or on schoolwork. Not to mention, minority groups are experiencing unique evolutions of the mental health crisis that disproportionately affect students of color, first-generation students, and other underrepresented groups (Powell, “Trust, Belonging, Keys to Mental Health of Students of Color”). If even the well-represented majority at a predominantly white institution like Holy Cross is not doing well, consider how bad it’s gotten for those who are facing unspoken challenges,  like marginalized students. 

In my attempt to find more study-based evidence to show the extent of the Holy Cross mental health crisis, I couldn’t find any public studies focused on our school specifically. However, other American universities have revealed some startling statistics that may offer similar insight into the situation at Holy Cross. For example, the University of Michigan has conducted the Healthy Minds Study since 2007: an annual web-based survey that examines mental health patterns and resource utilization among students. Researchers with the Healthy Minds Study found that 66 percent of students felt isolated and only 40 percent of students with depression and/or anxiety received counseling (Heinze). The Mayo Clinic compiled national statistics that compose a similar picture: 75 percent of students struggling with mental health are reluctant to seek help and may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms like substance abuse instead (Mayo Clinic Health System Staff). Keep in mind, both the Healthy Minds Study and the Mayo Clinic statistics only include data from students who decided to respond and are limited to certain states or universities. The actual statistics may be much different. 

It’s easy to separate Holy Cross from the national mental health crisis among colleges, considering it’s a smaller institution and therefore students may get more “attention” than the average state school. But the effects of the crisis are much closer than they seem; in fact, just a few miles down the road from the College of the Holy Cross, the mental health crisis at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is as severe as ever. Having lost seven students in this year so far—three of whom had been confirmed suicides—students have been forced to reckon with grief and intense pressure all while under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic (Turken). 

In response, many Holy Cross students have united with WPI students in solidarity, shown through reposting quotes demanding change from administration and joining WPI students in walks and vigils. Through their impressive advocacy, students across both schools are showing that the current mental health climate needs to change. But administrations across Holy Cross, WPI, and all American colleges for that matter, are not showing the same concern. If the Holy Cross administration is truly in solidarity with WPI, and WPI administration is in solidarity with their students, those in higher up positions will take the steps needed to institute stronger resources and accommodate student needs. It’s concerning that it’s taking students several decades younger to pressure adults at these institutions to make changes they are fully capable of enforcing. 

Worse yet, there is a harmful tendency to attribute current spikes in the current mental health crisis solely to temporary conditions like the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, the pandemic has exacerbated many mental health problems because of mandatory isolation and social distancing. For example, researchers from Boston College revealed reports of anxiety increased to 50 percent and depression to 44 percent—“rates six times higher than 2019”—and even worse among the 18–29 age group (Hayward, “Covid-19’s Toll on Mental Health”). In short, this research reveals that COVID-19 has been terrible for mental health—but this is a well-known consensus.

The issue with attributing the mental health crisis to just COVID-19 is that it presents these concerns as undeserving of immediate attention or long-term changes to mental health resources. For example, the framing of the “six times” increase in mental health statistics from 2019 makes these findings seem like a great revelation, but the pre-pandemic crisis was pretty bad already. As Assistant Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, Justin Heinz (who helped lead the “Healthy Minds Study” at the University of Michigan), puts it: “We are not necessarily attributing this to a dramatic spike in fall of 2020, but we actually see this as part of an overall trend of rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health outcomes.” Regardless of the pandemic, declining mental health conditions are here to stay and should be expected to get worse unless policies change. 

I believe if administrators and higher-ups knew the true extent of the Holy Cross mental health crisis, they would be scrambling to make radical changes. Instead, it’s been a very slow and painful process to experience—a performative email here, resistant enforcers there. For many, it seems that at Holy Cross, students and administrative officials do not work at the same school. Completely unaware of what the other is doing, these groups misunderstand what the other is feeling and disagree on how to reconcile mutual problems. There cannot be any helpful resolution for the school without input from both sides. In an effort to jumpstart better communication, see this piece as a perspective from the student side of things. 

All of this is to say that those with power at Holy Cross and every college across the nation have not been doing enough to mitigate the crisis. I like to dish out slack as much as I can, but the gravity of mental health does not allow that option here. Like many American businesses, higher-ups at Holy Cross rely on high turnover rates to avoid long-term accountability (whether they’re aware of it or not). But during my time here and afterward, I will advocate for student needs and remain transparent to prospective applicants to the College by exposing just how dire the situation is. 

And as much as I feel the strong need for more mental health counselors and services, I don’t have much credibility when it comes to qualifications or the right professional advice. But it doesn’t take a doctorate to see just how dire students’ mental health is. Waiting for a tragedy before taking the right actions is unacceptable, and to be blind of the mental health crisis at Holy Cross is to be willfully ignorant. I feel it, hear it, and live it along with many other students at Holy Cross. 

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

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