"I don't know anyone [at Yale] who hasn't had therapy. It's a big culture on campus," says a rosy-cheeked undergraduate in a pink sweatshirt. She is nestled in a couch in the subsidized coffee shop adjacent to Yale's Good Life Center, where students can sip sustainably sourced espresso and $3 tea lattes. "Ninety percent of the people I know have at least tried." For every 20 of her friends, this sophomore estimates, four have bipolar disorder — as does she, she says.
Another young woman scanning her computer at a sunlit table in the cafĂ© says that all her friends "struggle with mental health here. We talk a lot about therapy approaches to improve our mental health versus how much is out of your control, like hormonal imbalances." Yale's dorm counselors readily refer freshmen to treatment, she says, because most have been in treatment themselves. Indeed, they are selected because they have had an "adversity experience" at Yale, she asserts.
Such voices represent what is universally deemed a mental-health crisis on college campuses. More than one in three students report having a mental-health disorder. Student use of therapy nationally rose almost 40 percent from 2009 to 2015, while enrollment increased by only 5 percent, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. At smaller colleges, 40 percent or more of the student body has gone for treatment; at Yale, over 50 percent of undergraduates seek therapy.
Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos created the Good Life Center in response to this alleged mental-health crisis. She had just taught what is billed as the most popular course in Yale's history: "Psychology and the Good Life," which aimed to arm students with "scientifically validated" techniques for overcoming emotional distress and "living a more satisfying life." The course presented the findings of positive psychology, a recent subfield that examines what makes humans happy, rather than what makes them miserable. "Psychology and the Good Life" was not just a disinterested overview, however; it was a semester-long exercise in self-help. Students were assigned better mental-health practices — getting more sleep one week, exercising a few minutes a day another; meditating during the next week, keeping a gratitude journal the following week. For the final exam, students designed their own personalized self-help: the "Hack Yo'Self Project."
The course's target audience was, by its own account, in desperate need of emotional rescue. "A lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb," a female freshman told the New York Times. "The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment." The size of the turnout itself was therapeutic: "Being able to see that an entire giant concert hall full of people is struggling alongside you is huge," another student told the Yale Daily News. Apparently, being a Yale student was a massive burden — something that would have astounded Yale's legendary teachers, such as art historian Vincent Scully and literary critic Harold Bloom, who conveyed to students the excitement they should feel before the lure of beauty and knowledge.
The questions of what leads to happiness and how we should conduct our lives have deep philosophical roots in the West, stretching back to the pre-Socratics. The Stoics and Epicureans sought to inculcate in their followers a mental outlook that would steel them against fate and the fear of death. Only a virtuous life, growing out of settled habits of character, the ancients counseled, led to happiness. Aristotle posited that the use of reason to attain truth would bring fulfillment, since reason was man's highest faculty and truth was the telos of human existence.
The syllabus for "Psychology and the Good Life" contained no hint of this rich tradition. Instead, it was relentlessly presentist, consisting of online TED talks, news articles on positive psychology, lecture videos from other psychology courses, short research papers, and chapters from recent nonfiction books, like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's Nudge. The final recommended reading was Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go. To get students "pumped" for each lecture, Santos played the Black-Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" ("I gotta feeling, that tonight, that tonight / That tonight's gonna be a good, good, good, good, good / Good, good, good, good, good, good, good, good, good, good"). Plato's Symposium this wasn't.
Nearly a quarter of Yale's undergraduates signed up for "Psychology and the Good Life," whose popularity may have been boosted by rumors of undemanding grading expectations. Courses that met at the same time experienced a sharp drop in enrollment. A decision was taken not to reoffer the "Good Life" course. As it happened, however, Santos had precious real estate at her disposal, since she leads Silliman College, one of Yale's 14 undergraduate residential communities. So she converted four rooms at the top of a landing in Silliman into the Good Life Center, to "promote a campus culture that values wellness as a community responsibility," as the center's mission statement reads. Or, in less bureaucratic terms, to "spread good vibes," as the GLC website puts it.
A telling thing happened in the transition from "Psychology and the Good Life" to the Good Life Center: the project took on an overtly feminized, New Age cast. The first thing a visitor encounters on the fourth-floor landing of the GLC is a Mason jar containing folded paper slips and the suggestion to take or leave a message of support. A suggestion to leave one's sense of irony behind would have been equally appropriate. The messages on the top three paper slips, written in variously colored felt-tip pins, were:
"This too shall pass"
"Breathe: 1. 2. 3. Exhale
That wasn't that hard, right?
"Place a hand
Over your heart,
Take a deep breath,
'I'm not alone'
'I can do this'
Take time for yourself today
You deserve it!"
Such Hallmark-card sentiments are posted on blackboards, whiteboards, easels, and fabric canvases throughout the center:
"You got this!"
"I am strong
I am brave
I am kind
I am beautiful!"
"You is smart you is kind you is important"
One can only conclude that Yale students are so desperate for affirmation that they are willing to believe that a message written by an unknown sender to no one in particular applies to them. Such cheaply bought self-esteem is a universe apart from what Jonathan Edwards, say, would have imbibed as a student at Yale in 1716 before going on to lead the first Great Awakening with sermons about sin and an angry G od. It is equally remote from what generations of later Yale matriculants would have encountered in their studies of classical languages, science, logic, and mathematics.
Yale's founders and subsequent leaders would have been puzzled by the books in the GLC's "Study" as well. Lined up on a bookshelf among specially designed bottles of bubble solution ("Inhale deeply exhale bubbles," invites an adjacent sign), they seem to have been imported from the Inspirational Reading section of an airport newsstand. Titles include: 50 Ways to Feel Happy (aimed at seven- to 11-year-olds, per the publisher), Your Hidden Superpowers, Positivity: How to Be Happier, Healthier, Smarter, and More Prosperous, and Christopher Robin: The Little Book of Pooh-isms. Actually reading A. A. Milne would expose students to one of the greatest voices of British children's literature, whose gently ironic insights into human foibles and crystalline style belong squarely in the magnificent British novel tradition. But Christopher Robin: The Little Book of Pooh-isms is just another shallow self-help book.
On to the Sandbox, where stressed-out Yalies can use tiny wooden rakes to rearrange fine white sand in a large circular receptacle sunk into the middle of the room. Talking is discouraged. Outside light filters through muslin curtains; a white-noise machine and an electrified wall fountain contribute to the soothing effect of the room's moss-green color scheme. Sleep masks hang on the wall; Apache blankets and yoga pads further beckon toward sleep. A barista on a break from drawing cappuccinos in the adjacent coffee shop says that students frequent the Sandbox at night "to calm down after a long day" — as if they were stock traders coming off a nasty rout on Wall Street.
Yale's woke spa also offers programmed activities to relieve student anxiety. Students can attend a four-week Koru Mindfulness course that helps participants be "kinder" to themselves, a Mental Health Empowerment Series to "get in touch with" their values, a "combined vinyasa/restorative yoga flow," massage Mondays, and a puppy study break with Kiwi the Wellness Pup. Students can make their "very own meditation bracelet with a variety of beautiful beads."
Identity politics and the therapeutic agenda are intimately related, at Yale and elsewhere. The Good Life Center hosts a "wellness study break" exclusively for Yale's "POCs" (people of color), where minority students can "come together and relax, make some essential oils, sip on some smoothies, and enjoy the DIY trail mix bar." Yale, like other schools, had not previously been deficient in opportunities to self-segregate.
The GLC mission is perfectly encapsulated in a consumer survey on the center's website: Do you "feel safe and supported at the GLC," do you "come to the GLC as a refuge," do the "aesthetics and atmosphere of the GLC" make you "feel calmer and less anxious," it asks. Poll respondents could win "cool wellness prizes": a mandala travel yoga mat; and an essential-oil diffuser and oils.
Here, in a nutshell, is the essence of the college woke spa: an aesthetic and worldview built predominantly around what have been largely female interests, concerns, and fears. The GLC's self-esteem bromides, the self-compassion ethic, the yoga and mindfulness sessions — all would be at home in a Beverly Hills "healing space," where trophy wives can "center themselves in an atmosphere of calm." A visitor keeps expecting to encounter crystals and star charts.
This ethos characterizes the wellness crusade throughout academia. The Spring 2020 "Mindfulness Menu" at Bucknell University offers DIY Body Scrubs, DIY Eye Masks, DIY Lotion, and DIY Chapsticks as part of "self-care Saturdays." Beloit College's "de-stress fest" features DIY Tea Making, as well as the inevitable therapy dogs. Senior Andrew Collins reports that "no man — not even a Beloit man — would let himself be caught dead at a tea making." Hamilton College students can soothe themselves in a massage chair under a weighted blanket. A Harvard counseling office suggested "Self-Calming and Self-Recharging Activities," such as:
Watch the sun rise or set.
• Read a book of my favorite cartoons.
• Listen to a book on tape/CD.
• Share a hug with a loved one.
• Enjoy a long, warm bath or shower.
• Create a collage representing "The Real Me."
• Attend a support group.
Underneath the essential oils and yoga mats, the woke spa mental-wellness crusade is accomplishing an even more profound transformation of university life. The assumption that emotional threat and danger lie just beyond the spa is the product of an increasingly female-dominated student body, faculty, and administration. That assumption is undermining traditional academic values of rational discourse, argumentation, and free speech.
For the last 40 years, men have been an underrepresented minority in higher education, reports American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry. Since 1982, females earned nearly 14 million more college degrees than men. Colleges began a "desperate" search for women faculty in the 1970s that eroded the "intellectual rigor of elite higher education in the U.S.," says Camille Paglia, the feminist professor and author. "Due to that sudden influx, academe's entire internal culture changed," she says. As the female presence has grown, so have claims of a crisis of collegiate mental health.
Nationally, about two-thirds of the students who sought treatment for mental-health disorders in the 2018â€“19 academic year were female, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. At Yale, therapy use is heavily female and LGBTQ, according to students. "There are few straight men using therapy," one self-identified "queer" girl in the GLC said. "It's stigmatized for straight CIS men. Almost all my friends who go to therapy identify as gay or trans."
The top conditions for which students seek treatment — anxiety and depression — are quintessentially female maladies. On a widely used psychological typology of five major personality traits, females on average score higher than males on "neuroticism," characterized by a susceptibility to stress and anxiety and by pronounced mood swings. Bucknell University's Counseling and Student Development Center promotes Zen meditation as an antidote to classic features of a neurotic personality: stress, fears, self-doubt, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
"Nationally, about two-thirds of students who sought treatment for mental-health disorders were female."
The counselors and therapists from whom these anxious students seek treatment are themselves overwhelmingly female. Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services department is nearly three-to-one female to male in its staffing. Fifteen percent of the 33 members of Williams College's Student Health and Wellness are male. The psychology profession is dominated by females. In the 2016â€“17 academic year, females received 78 percent of all bachelor's degrees in psychology; Ph.D.s were similarly lopsided. At Yale, psychology does not even show up among the top-ten most popular majors for male undergraduates; for females, it is the fourth most popular degree.
From 1991 to 2003, the American Psychological Association had 11 male presidents and two female presidents. Since 2004, it has had nine female presidents and seven male presidents. As the sex balance shifted, the nature of the APA's concerns became more political. The current president, a woman, helped develop the APA's Multicultural Guidelines and chaired the APA Task Force on the World Congress Against Racism Report. The previous president, also a female, sought to instruct the field about the myths of meritocracy and the "othering" of low-income people. In 2019, the APA defined traditional masculinity as a psychological disorder. Male stoicism, self-reliance, and competitiveness injure men as well as society, announced the APA's Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. One of the clearest markers of the masculinist disorder is an unwillingness to seek treatment for it. The less males go to therapy, the more they prove their psychological infirmity, according to the APA. Effort must be trained on stamping out the ethic of self-sufficiency and replacing it with an ethic of "self-compassion" and "self-care." It is no surprise that males tend to shun this particular helping profession.
The stampede of an increasingly female student body into an overwhelmingly female mental-health bureaucracy is creating service bottlenecks. But efforts to ensure that students use their free therapy more responsibly produce a sharp backlash, thanks to students' consumerist self-conception. The vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence at American University sent a supplicating e-mail to AU's undergrads asking them to keep their mental-health appointments rather than skipping out without notice. Thirty-one percent of student therapy clients at the university don't show up for at least one of their sessions, resulting in the equivalent of five unannounced no-shows a day, or one-fifth of all counseling-center appointments. The "emotional well-being of our community" is jeopardized by such behavior, pled the vice president.
The student body did not take such a rebuke lying down. "The e-mail seems to be an unprompted episode of the university telling students what they are doing wrong," responded the Student Government Executive Board, as reported by Inside Higher Education. Obviously, the administration had forgotten its place, which was to cater to student whim. The most hurtful thing about the vice president's request was the use of data. Statistics are just so . . . unfeeling. The administration's e-mail "seems to shift the blame for AU's inadequate mental-health resources onto students by listing statistics, which we find an inherently limited approach," complained the executive board. "Simple metrics inadequately capture the context and personal circumstances of every individual student."
Students on other campuses backed up the outraged American University sufferers. "The blame or responsibility should never be on the student, especially a mentally ill student," a student advocate at Brown University told Inside Higher Education. If a student doesn't show up to a counseling appointment, it's the university's responsibility to "work out the logistics," she said.
Even if administrators remain mum about irresponsible student behavior, they will still get blasted if they attempt to ration their finite resources. At Williams, demand for therapy reached an all-time high this school year — up 15 percent to 18 percent — with a wait list of up to 55 students for appointments. The school proposed decreasing therapy sessions from 45 minutes to 30 to accommodate growing demand, while keeping uncapped the number of appointments students could have. This reform was unacceptable. "You could be in the middle of a session when something is triggered that you couldn't have prepared for, and then you need that extra 15 minutes to talk through it. You can't plan for those things," a trans student told the Williams Record. Another remedy for the wait list was also panned: free video-counseling sessions all year round, in addition to unlimited text messaging with an off-site therapist. Too impersonal, a journalism student told the campus newspaper. Some students "don't like that they can't really establish a relationship with their therapist." Of course, free, unlimited therapy of any sort is an unheard-of luxury off campus.
At some schools, students are instituting additional therapy resources themselves. William and Mary senior Anu Goel spearheaded the creation of safe spaces in the school's dormitories so that students could have their "crises" right where they live rather than having to "run" to the counseling center or having to make an appointment. "Part of being in a crisis is that you can't predict that I'll be in a crisis in a week," when your counseling may be scheduled, Goel told the Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council. "The crisis you're having now can get worse or it could become a different crisis." Dormitory safe spaces send the message to students: "This is where you'll have a lot of your crises" — in your "own home," Goel said.
What do these incessant "crises" look like? The Chronicle of Higher Education collected some student reports. "It's very physical for me. It starts in my chest, and then I kind of get short of breath maybe. I get the chills a lot, when I get anxiety. It's hard for me to listen or understand. I think it's really important to normalize the conversation around taking a day off for your mental health just as you would for your physical health," reported Carly, a student at Emerson College. "I panicked during a routine test. I forgot to take my medication, and I got the 'deer in the headlights' feeling. It was horrifying. Anxiety is not brought on just because we didn't study hard enough. I had a teacher tell me that. It boiled my blood," said Kelly from Pensacola State College. A Victorian neurasthenic would recognize these feelings.
Mental-health administrators have the same imperialistic ambitions as the rest of the student-services bureaucracy. They seek to extend their reach to the entire campus population, through an open-ended definition of "wellness." Williams's Integrative Wellbeing Services, for example, "reimagines" mental-health services to encompass "all students." There's a service for everyone, whether providing "healthy coping and self-care skills," integrating "identities of all kinds," or offering an "ever-expanding array of psychoeducational workshops, groups, special events and outreach activities."
UWell, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a "collaborative effort to advance the well-being of the entire campus community." It seeks "equitable outcomes" through focusing on "safety" from physical and psychological harm. UWell defines well-being as an "active pursuit to understand and fulfill individual human needs," thus allowing people to "flourish and realize their full potential." Not a word about the acquisition of knowledge as a route to realizing one's potential.
George Mason University has a chief well-being officer, who also directs the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Well-being at George Mason is about social justice, as well as about "building a life of vitality, purpose, resilience, and engagement," the chief well-being officer told The Chronicle of Higher Education. All those values require therapeutic assistance.
Indeed, everything that a student might contemplate doing has a mental-health implication and a potential bureaucratic fix. Yale's Good Life Center sent out a university-wide query in December 2019 asking whether students needed "guidance on riding the wave of uncertainty that Winter Break can bring." Being in school creates anxiety; so does being out of school. Students stressed out over the upcoming vacation could consult The Student's Guide to (Mentally and Mindfully) Surviving Winter Break or Smart Moves Students Can Make over Winter Break, suggested the GLC. Neither of these guides mentioned reading a great book to overcome the boredom that students were predicted to experience without dorm-organized pizza and movie nights.
Conversation contains many mental-health landmines, making it, too, a fertile target for bureaucratic intervention. Harvard created 700 flash cards to guide student conversation in "structured settings." Facilitators from the Harvard administration would use the cards to "provide boundaries, interventions, and assistance for ensuring a safe and supportive context for communication" about "our thoughts and feelings." Columbia's vice president for student life organizes Campus Conversations, where students "engage with issues of race and identity" pursuant to a detailed manual drawn up by Columbia's Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion Task Force.
Parents represent an exciting new growth opportunity. The director of Family Engagement at Barnard College instructs parents on how to help their children cope emotionally in college without parental intercession. Parents should write a "script" that their student can use to complain to a professor about a bad grade, suggested the family-engagement director in the New York Times. The parent should also tell the student to transcribe the script into his phone or a readily accessible notebook, to be read at the crucial moment. Apparently no step of any interaction may be reliably executed without a bureaucratic assist. The irony of an administrative overseer tasked with detaching students from their parents was lost on the family-engagement director.
Given the overlap between the campus mental-health and social-justice bureaucracies, it was inevitable that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 would produce an explosion of mental-health interventions. At Virginia Tech, the director of the intercultural engagement center wrote to students: "I want you to hear clearly that you are loved. You deserve wellness. You deserve to thrive." The director recommended "spaces" where students could grieve and receive counseling, reported Campus Reform. The vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, announced the availability of counseling throughout the election week and a "Coping and Balance" workshop where students could play with "Doggo, the therapy dog." Should Trump be reelected this November, the resulting mental-health emergency could blow out the entire campus ecosystem.
The feminization of the university and the prominence of therapeutic culture have created a perfect storm directed at free speech and reason. In a recent survey of college students, females were twice as likely as males to say that a controversial speaker should be canceled if the majority of students "feel emotionally unsafe or uncomfortable with the speaker's content." Males, by contrast, were more likely to support a controversial invitation in the name of academic freedom and the advancement of knowledge. The enormous shift in basic values on college campuses over the last 50 years cannot be understood without taking gender into account, concluded psychology researcher Zachary Rausch on the Psychology Today website.
The real crisis in academia is not mental health; it is the breakdown of universities' understanding of their core mission. All other alleged crises follow from this one. Education exists for one main purpose: to pass on an inheritance of human achievement, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott explained. Yet faculty have lost the language for celebrating that inheritance; they have gone mute, or worse, when it comes to articulating the splendors of Western civilization.
College is not even about the promotion of happiness. That is too utilitarian a goal; knowledge is an end in itself. But even were student happiness a legitimate matter for colleges to concern themselves with, a therapeutic approach is the wrong way to cultivate it. The surest route to happiness is a passion for something outside the self. The only thing that kept Bertrand Russell from committing suicide during his adolescence was his desire to learn more math, he recounts in his 1930 book, The Pursuit of Happiness. As an adult, his "diminishing preoccupation" with himself led to growing contentment: "Every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventive of ennui," he wrote. J. S. Mill, who also grappled with depression, agreed. "The only chance [for happiness] is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life," Mill wrote in his autobiography.
What better antidote to ennui than a university library? A student therapy client in the Good Life Center coffee shop merely gave a hollow laugh, however, when asked if reading great literature provides emotional solace. "I don't think so," she responded bitterly. "Going through Yale, it's easier not to think deeply. Books make me feel sadder, make me feel things which can lead to other things." Remarkably, this world-weary cynic was herself an English major.
But Yale, like virtually every other American college, has been busily deconstructing any claim to sublimity that English literature and other Western art forms may have. In 2017, the English department faculty changed the course requirements for the English major in response to a student petition claiming that requiring the reading of John Milton and Edmund Spenser created a culture "especially hostile to students of color." In 2019, Yale's art history department canceled a wholly optional introduction to Western art course for fears that it uncritically "privileged" Western art. No wonder, then, that the majority of Yale students "probably don't feel that the Great Books are worth reading," as senior Paul Han puts it. A reporter for the Yale Daily News backs Han up: "Many Yale students would reject the study of Western Civilization as the core feature of a college education on the grounds that it is oppressive," says sophomore Valerie Pavilonis.
The student-services bureaucracy has rushed into this vacuum created by the faculty's abdication of its intellectual responsibility. "Administrators, most of them without teaching experience, no longer regard the faculty as central or even necessary," says Camille Paglia.
Our civilization is engaged in an unprecedented experiment: turning on its own accomplishments with shame and contempt. American students growing up today are given reason to be proud of their heritage only if they have had that rare nonconforming teacher who still honors the past. Otherwise, students are taught to see in the monuments of Western thought and imagination a thinly veiled power grab. They themselves are either oppressors or the oppressed, either category spirit-killing.
Adults may not be giving children reason for enthusiasm and elation, but they are giving them the "language of pathology," as a dean of arts and sciences at a Southern university put it in a recent interview. If students have not already learned to interpret their intellectual and spiritual malaise as a function of mental illness before arriving on campus, the mental-health and wellness bureaucracy awaits to teach them how.
Seventy-five thousand dollars a year is quite a price tag for self-help coaching, however. The entire corpus of inspirational books in the Good Life Center's study could be had for a few hundred dollars; interpreting them requires no scholarly expertise. The university's comparative advantage over all other institutions should be the promise of real knowledge. But as the therapeutic culture has spread throughout the university, the language of reason and evidence has been replaced by claims of emotional hurt. In any controversy, the person who can express the deepest outrage or injury wins the day, as Williams sociologist James Nolan put it in a 2017 interview. "I feel like" substitutes for rational argument.
The United States is undergoing a test of national character, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of the global economy in response. Massive social upheaval, including the breakdown of civil order, is possible. Colleges could have prepared the young for the emotional stresses that lie ahead by immersing them in the great works of the past. By reading Oedipus Rex, King Lear, Montaigne's essays, Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, War and Peace, Death in Venice, di Lampedusa's The Leopard, among other masterpieces, they would have learned of the unimaginable cruelties of Fortuna and of the unforeseen triumphs of the human spirit. Instead, they are demanding surcease from grades in the name of their mental health and are serving as self-appointed enforcers of virus public-health mandates. A student from an elite college in Virginia reported her parents to a doctor for hosting a home prayer service that exceeded by one the nine-person limit on social gatherings. It is already apparent that the therapeutic tools of victimhood will provide neither solace nor inspiration for the challenges ahead.