Pressure situation: Campuses must support students' mental health

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It isn't surprising that Carnegie Mellon University and other top schools are academic pressure cookers. Part of their appeal to those smart enough (and lucky enough) to get in is the rigorous curriculum.

As everyone knows, colleges and universities are expensive. On top of that many campuses have become cauldrons of competition where nailing top grades to ensure an edge in applying for graduate school or landing a job can trump socializing, sane study habits and, unfortunately, even one's physical and mental well-being.

In many ways, students, parents and faculty have made their peace with this grim status quo. While self-imposed pressure to achieve isn't generally a bad thing, it can take something traumatizing like the death of a student to remind a university community of the heavy academic and personal stresses that can be borne by young adults.

After a Carnegie Mellon sophomore died in a fall from his bedroom window on Dec. 7, the death was ruled a suicide. It was the fifth suicide on campus in 10 years, a total that mental health experts say is in the expected range for the school's size.

Writing the next week in CMU's campus newspaper, The Tartan, newly graduated senior Katie Chironis complained about the psychic and emotional toll that the academic workload is taking on students. She decried a university administration that reminded students to "eat cake for Andrew Carnegie's birthday," but "not how to identify a peer in emotional trouble." It was a plea for balance and sanity that many students, faculty and parents appreciated.

To CMU's credit, it held a session Monday night, attended by more than 250 people, to discuss how the drive for success has affected student life. President Jared Cohon was there for part of the nearly two-hour meeting, at which speakers took the microphone and made suggestions for how the university could help students cope with the pressures. It was a good exchange, the kind of dialogue that should take place on every American campus.

The challenge confronted is not unique to CMU. Students everywhere who push themselves too hard too fast can run the risk of being overwhelmed. That's why their families and college officials need to remind young adults that mental health, just like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste.

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