The Road to Wellness

Mental health is a delicate and serious issue. In fact, mental health, safety, and the concept of “wellness” – loosely defined as “being healthy physically and mentally” – have been central to the current ASSU Executive’s presidency. As such, the ASSU Exec sponsored “Wellness Week,” footing an almost $1000 bill, which, according to Jen Hawkins, the Co-Chair of Undergraduate Health and Wellness, went toward “advertising, bracelets, prizes, and the use of Braun Lecture Hall.”

One central component of the week was a competition that challenged participants to complete as many of 38 wellness activities as possible. Some of the week’s activities were to be done on your own. These included the banal (“smile at a stranger”), the embarrassing (“give yourself a manicure of pedicure”), to the exceedingly personal and potentially offensive (“have sex or masturbate”).

As soon as I heard how silly so many of the activities were, I knew I had to do it and write about my experiences for posterity’s sake, especially with the added bonus that there would be cash prizes ($100 to the winner, $75 and $50 to second and third respectively) awarded to the people who self-report the highest participation in an online survey.

The nine official Wellness events tended to fall into two categories. In the first category were events that placed an emphasis on feeling more “well.” Pretty much all the solo activities fall into this category as well. Events included yoga, meditation, and interacting with puppies and kittens (which raised funds for the Pets in Need). After such events, it would seem to be rude and in poor taste to say, “No, I don’t really feel any better.” And yet, sometimes that was the case—and thus I was forced to lie when asked at just about every happy event I attended, “How are you feeling?”

The great irony here is that much of the point of Wellness Week and modern approaches to mental health rely heavily on reducing stigma and allowing people to feel comfortable seeking help and expressing themselves freely, yet these situations provide a rather sharp stigma toward those who are not enjoying themselves.

In the second category were the events that left the impression that just about everyone around you has a mental illness and is very effective at hiding it. In fact, you may even have a mental illness that has not been diagnosed yet.

STAMP delivered a set of monologues on Thursday that would fall into that category. In it, students performed Stanford students’ anonymously submitted monologues dealing with mental health issues.

The story arc of the first three stories was essentially: 1) things were not going well for me, 2) I was diagnosed with a mental illness, and 3) I took some pills that have, to a degree neutralized, the symptoms of my mental illness.

These were much more depressing than the following monologues which dealt with people who were accepting of the fact that they had sometimes debilitating mental illnesses, but that they would do their best to control and overcome their symptoms.

Again, this event was followed by a question and answer wherein there really is only one proper response as to how they made you feel—“relieved I don’t have to deal with mental illness” would unquestionably be insensitive.

While there are indeed circumstances where stigmatizing wide ranges of emotions is appropriate (joking about anything at a funeral is obviously inappropriate), too much of Wellness Week revolved around situations where feeling outside a certain range of emotions was inappropriate.

The transition from the STAMP monologues to the Wellness Room Party, which overlapped on Thursday night was particularly jarring. There is a rather sharp disconnect between going to hear about a student’s rather tragic struggle with depression or bipolar disorder and going to a finger paint-adorned, beanbag chair-festooned room with students in a massage train, and ASSU President David Gobaud declaring that “puppies” were the only thing that would make the event better.

All told, I probably spent about 15 hours on Wellness Week-related activities, and presumably I will be reimbursed $100 for winning first prize for participating the most, with second and third place participants (very likely my two other compatriots who kept me company on a number of these missions) receiving $75 and $50 each. At times Wellness Week was enjoyable, as it can be nice to get out of one’s comfort zone.

Coming into Wellness Week, I basically expected I would get a few laughs at the silliness of tasks such as getting a pedicure, talking to myself in a mirror Stuart Smalley-style, and reading a children’s book. Despite my criticisms of it, my experience with Wellness Week was on the whole positive, though I could not imagine participating at this level again.

I petted cacti. I heard Fred Luskin give a rather informative talk on how important it is to have perspective on things. I met Pavel, a yoga instructor who learned yoga in Soviet Russia where they called it “mind control exercises” to hide the religious connotations of “yoga.” These were all good.

But the week as a whole was not all positive. As Wellness Week organizer Jen Hawkins told me, the goal of the week was to “get students to take a more active role in ensuring their own well being.” I came into Wellness Week with expectations and biases that prevent me from pretending I can fairly answer that question. But I must say I was disappointed in the dichotomous nature of the events, where the only two expected emotional states were either extreme happiness or extreme sadness and sobriety. It is difficult to improve one’s emotional state in circumstances where the honest expression of emotions is subtly discouraged.

For more stories on all 38 Wellness Week activities, visit Fiat Lux, The Stanford Review’s blog, at http://blog.stanfordreview.org.

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Petting puppies from a local sheleter was one of the most popular ASSU Wellness Week activities. (Photo Credit: Sylvie Greenberg / The Stanford Review)
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