One of the distinguishing features of Stanford University is the strong promotion of health and wellness programs as a pillar of campus life. Both undergraduate and graduate students have available to them a variety of resources for maintaining physical and mental health, including free nutrition programs, full gyms, “wellness” fairs and “wellness”-focused dining halls, et cetera, ad nauseum.
Stanford’s vociferous advertising campaigns for these health programs in admissions literature and on its website, combined with its “health-conscious” Northern California location, has won the university the reputation of being the “healthy” school among its peer institutions. But although health programs at Stanford are valuable resources for students in need of help, the university could do more.
Actively promoting health resources is by all means a noble pursuit for academic institutions, particularly residential ones, and it undoubtedly improves student access to quality health resources on campus. However, garnering a reputation for the “healthy” campus with the “healthiest” student body brings with it unintended consequences. Perhaps the most infamous of these include the “Stanford Duck” syndrome. For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Stanford Duck” refers to a phenomenon by which Stanford students appear calm and unstressed on the surface, but in reality are frantically struggling to keep up—much like a swimming duck appears calm above water, but underwater feverishly paddles to stay afloat.
There is an obvious problem with the Stanford duck syndrome. While other students seem to do perfectly around individuals who may need help, it encourages those hurting individuals to assume that they are the only ones with problems at Stanford.
The Bridge Peer Counseling Center is one health resource that Stanford should do more to support. Currently, funding for the Bridge is funneled through the ASSU, like most other student-run campus organizations. However, this means that students may individually choose not to support the Bridge, taking out a fee waiver at waivers.stanford.edu. When a critical mass of students do this, the Bridge loses key funding even if the number of students who take advantage of its services increases. This quarter, in the wake of two student deaths, the Bridge has experienced such an increase in calls.
The Bridge Peer Counseling Center is one of the few health resources that provide a service specifically targeted at the Stanford duck syndrome. Talking to peers about health issues removes the illusion of the Stanford duck, and prevents students in need from feeling isolated. Additionally, peer resources often appear less intimidating than the traditional counseling and psychological services at Vaden, which require appointments with professionals that are far less anonymous.
Stanford should take a more decisive stance on supporting peer health resources like the Bridge. Simply because a university has a reputation for being “healthy” does not mean its students do not need help sometimes, and often peer resources are the first resources to which students turn. For a private institution, it makes sense that a critical few resources must absolutely be supported by the University, and not left to students. The Bridge is one of those critical resources.
The Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) is one student health resource for which variable funding through the ASSU makes sense. In addition to providing sexual health counseling, the SHPRC gives away free condoms, and sells condoms, pregnancy tests, and sex toys. Students who do not support any of those services due to religious or other reasons should not be forced to support them financially.
The peer counseling offered at the Bridge is not so controversial. Healthy students have positive externalities for the community; simply because one student does not directly benefit from peer counseling does not mean that they do not indirectly benefit. To really take a meaningful stance on promoting mental health, Stanford needs to seriously consider how and why all of its health resources are being funded. The services that are protecting the most students early on are the ones that the university needs to support.