‘Bethel culture made my depression worse’

May 9, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Views | Matt Kelley

Race and skin color

A student's honest account and analysis.

I came to Bethel as a kid looking for a place to truly belong. After struggling for four years at two different public colleges in my home state of Illinois, I knew I didn’t belong there. So I wandered north to Arden Hills, looking to recreate my high school circumstances, – the last time I was happy, the last time I belonged anywhere. However, after two years on campus, I still feel like a stranger, and I’ll still be searching for a place to belong after I graduate on May 25.

Bethel can be a tremendous place, and it’s not as if I didn’t have some satisfying experiences here. But I feel that in my times of desperation, a student body that claims to excel at reaching out to “the least of these” passed me by.

Last fall I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Almost all of my professors were a tremendous help – even those who didn’t know about my diagnosis – and I found the school’s health and counseling services to be more than adequate. After counseling I realized that I had been depressed for quite a while, but my symptoms had gotten steadily more serious since I started going to school here. I discovered that Bethel culture made my depression worse.

But before addressing the culture on campus, I’d like to paint a picture of what my version of oft-misunderstood depression looks like, as an example of what dozens – if not hundreds – of Bethel students may be going through, often anonymously.

Sadness to madness

Although the symptoms of depression and their severity vary, my diagnosis was relatively severe and traditional. I exhibited versions of all nine classic symptoms: (1) depressed mood, (2) loss of interest in pleasure, (3) unintentional weight gain, (4) hypersomnia, (5) slowing of thoughts and actions, (6) loss of energy, (7) feelings of worthlessness, (8) increased difficulty concentrating and (9) fixation on death. By Thanksgiving, my life was dominated by these symptoms so consistently that I began to accept them as my new identity. I can barely remember my life without a self-sustaining cycle of depression and worthlessness.

For me, the cycle generally begins with an overwhelming compulsion to be alone. This social aversion makes it difficult to go to class, nurture friendships, make new friends and accomplish personal goals – a totally unsustainable lifestyle. I recognized that I was struggling professionally and academically, which further eroded my self-worth. After being on campus for nearly two years, I’ve made fewer than three friends who (to put it in Bethel terms) would invite me to their wedding if they were getting married this summer. I eat comfort foods to cope, only to find my self-esteem evaporating as I gain weight. The loneliness and worthlessness feed the compulsion to be alone, and the cycle repeats and deepens.

Perhaps the most frustrating element – and the one most misunderstood by those unaffected by depression – is the issue of fault. It is true that my disorder doesn’t relieve me of my responsibility for my actions. There are times when, just like you, I’ve summoned the willpower to go to class, despite every thought and emotion pushing me to stay home.

The difference is that mundane tasks – every class I attend, every meeting I lead and every meal I share with classmates – require willpower and courage. Eventually, exhaustion overcomes the fumes left in my willpower reservoir. I recognize which choices are best for long-term happiness, but I’m often so desperate for relief from anxiety and sadness that my decisions reflect only immediate needs. It’s an endlessly frustrating trend.

How Bethel made me feel worse

1. Creating an atmosphere unfit for the unhappy

Overall, Bethel is a joyous place, and I’m sure the brochures will tell you that an upbeat attitude is derived from Christ-centered living. Like blood through arteries and veins, this joy forces its way to every extremity. But as a public university transfer, I felt like an organ rejected by the body after a transplant.

Make no mistake; it’s a wonderful asset to have a campus enlivened by consistent joy, especially if it’s genuinely derived from a Christian lifestyle. But seeing only a sea of grinning faces, I feel that I’m not allowed to be sad or angry. As a result, I bury my true feelings by applying my "happy mask" – and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one faking it.

Burying emotions delays the healing process and can lead to unhealthy habits as mechanisms for releasing displaced emotions. But in addition to compounding long-term mental problems, masking emotions makes the day-to-day grind incredibly taxing. Every hour spent in class or in the BC increases the pressure of pent-up emotions – like steam pressure in some ductwork – and I only feel comfortable releasing the surge when I’m alone.

Of course, I’m not asking other people to be less happy. But people should feel allowed to express their emotions without harsh judgment of others. The few times I’ve dropped my guard, my open sadness was met with something amounting to, “What’s wrong with you?” In my case, there was something wrong, but people get sad or angry all the time. This campus would be a lot healthier if people felt more comfortable expressing their true emotions instead of faking an effervescent smile.

2. Focusing too much on couples/relationships

I know we all love to see couples in the hall with their hands welded together, but I think Bethel culture ostracizes single people. The two campus events that divide semesters, Gadkin and Nikdag, cater exclusively to couples. Like most (but not all) on campus, I would have liked to date. But I have a hard enough time taking care of myself, so it would be a disaster. Plus it would be unfair to ask a girlfriend to solve my problems. So I’ve chosen to remain single for my entire two-year stay at Bethel, and I routinely feel judged for it. One girl even asked me if I was gay because I hadn’t dated anyone for a while.

As hard as it has been for me, I’m sure it’s even worse for the single women here, who are pressured to put their self-worth in finding a husband. It’s about time we stop viewing singleness as a failure.

3. Being too image conscious

Compared to the students I encountered at the University of Illinois, Bethel students are exponentially more concerned with how they are perceived. Some of this comes naturally at a small school where anonymity is impossible, but students here seem to have perfected the art. The result is a very contained culture that makes it difficult to build a social network as a transfer.

North Village, where I’ve lived for the last two years, has a certain mind-your-own-business vibe. Unless they already know each other, I rarely see rooms intermingle.

Class can be even worse at times. Since I’m a student in the English Department, most of my classmates are female. Despite eating almost all of my meals in the DC in solitude, I was only invited by an acquaintance to eat together once or twice.

I’m guessing the reason for this trend has something to do with the high-pressure dating culture. Because, of course, in Bethel’s image- and gossip-based culture, eating a meal together must mean a dating relationship is forming. I would love to see students jump to conclusions less often and be less concerned when judgment is passed.

I know that, overall, I share some responsibility for my mixed experience on campus. I realize that I could have been more assertive in making friends, more committed to my classes and more intentional about trying to date. But when my depression symptoms were at their worst, I needed someone to take the initiative to lift me up, and I feel that the student body consistently came up empty-handed. Don’t forget to look for “the least of these” among your peers. There are others who feel like they don’t belong.

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