Happy@Brown: Active Minds and “Smile Like You Mean It”

Wilson Hall

It’s cited in brochures, quoted in tours, and remains a point of pride for many here on College Hill. We all know Brown is the happiest school in America…or is it?

Despite the much-touted 2009 Princeton Review rankings, mental health and the perceived inadequacy of the university’s mental health support system have become some of the more pressing issues on campus in the past couple years. Depression-related deaths among members of the student body and a general dialogue on the issue have all served to increase debate and conversation on what both students and the administration can do to foster a more open, supportive environment for those suffering from difficulties with mental health.

Some students are particularly committed. Active Minds, a student organization focused on the promotion of open dialogue on mental health issues at Brown, recently held “Smile Like You Mean It: On Pretending to be Okay” in an effort to combat much of the stigma surrounding discussion of psychological issues on campus. The workshop, held on February 19th in Wilson, drew a crowd of students who engaged in a conversation on mental issues at college and particularly at Brown. The topic of the workshop centered around the problems and paradoxes of attempting to appear happy while struggling internally with depression and other psychological difficulties.

In addition to Active Minds organizers, students, cookies, and pizza, also in attendance was Dr. Judith Welch, a representative from Counseling and Psychological Services at University Health Services.

The major takeaway from the workshop? If you’re struggling with mental health issues, you’re not alone! While Brown may have some room to improve in how it supports students suffering from psychological distress, there are resources at your disposal–CAPS, Active Minds, and, while it might not be immediately apparent, more of your peers than you probably realize. Don’t ever hesitate to seek out help, whether you utilize one of these resources or all three.

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What does it mean to be unhappy at the happiest school in the nation?

In 2010 and 2011, Brown topped Princeton Review’s list of the colleges with the happiest students. Despite Brown’s dislike for rankings, this solidified for many what was already conventional wisdom: Brown is the “happy Ivy.” With our laissez-faire attitude about requirements and grading (and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), how could Brown students not be in nirvana?

My freshman year, this narrative defined my experience here. My freshman Facebook album title was Utopia; I was certainly attending the happiest university in the nation, if not the world.

But sophomore slump came, as it always does, and it got me thinking: can Brown’s reputation as the bastion of happiness be damaging for us? And who and what does this narrative let sit below the surface?

I drafted an anonymous survey, sent it out and received an overwhelming number of responses. It seemed Brown students from all corners of campus had something to say about this.

Before continuing, I’d like to clarify that neither this survey nor this article were specifically tailored to the experience of students struggling with mental illness and whether or not they feel Brown structurally supports them. Many responses to the survey did deal with this equally important issue and I felt those voices would best be served in an upcoming follow-up article specifically centered on the matter.

Instead, the survey attempted to look at happiness culture and its subsequent effects from a broader lens. The first question was:

What do you feel is Brown’s culture/reputation regarding happiness and wellness of students?

“If you’re not happy at Brown, you’re doing something horribly wrong.”

Every single respondent agreed that Brown’s reputation was that of a happy school. Many respondents connected this image of Brown to both lists of the happiest universities placing Brown at the top, and to misconceptions about our academic culture, such as ‘not having grades’ and ‘not having any requirements.’ (This is only true when talking about general distribution requirements but not true for one’s concentration. Concentration requirements cause a great amount of stress for students.)

Unsurprisingly, many Brown students felt that ranking something as intangible as happiness is ultimately detrimental to the students at the ranked schools. One respondent described Brown’s happy reputation as “damaging,” while another respondent felt that entities outside the Brown community (such as the Princeton Review) describing Brown as a happy school actually influences how students interact with each other and with the university, perpetuating certain unhealthy cultural elements at Brown.

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We are passionate about providing an engaging media platform that covers what the College Hill community wants to read, watch, and hear. From our research on what it means to be Happy@Brown, to our forays into Drunk/Sober/High territory, we are constantly trying to push the envelope and develop cutting-edge content to keep up with your pace. In order to always be here when people need us, we need you to keep our momentum going and to take Blog to new heights!

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