Benjamin headshot

Courtesy of Benjamin Pulgar-Guzman

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to mental health and suicide.

When I was 16, my younger brother was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety. My immigrant household did not have the language needed for him to ask for help or for us to aid in a way that did not make him angry. He began experiencing suicidal ideation shortly after. I was determined to keep him alive. I was there for him the way I anxiously knew how, in the limited capacity that I had and often in a parental, reactive way that left me boundaryless and left him dependent. Years later, he is living his adult life, but it came at the cost of a healthy relationship between us. We decided to change it, and we’ve become closer, more vulnerable and such a change hurt a lot.

Even though I had the best intentions, I was often patronizing and annoyed. It was not because I did not care. I cared deeply, but I was also anxious that I might find him one day in a state that I had nightmares about. I compartmentalized much of my feelings to cope with intense emotions. Instead of showing up healthily, I did so in ways that were ultimately detrimental.

Administration does not need to do what I did. The student government does not need to do what I did. Faculty does not need to do what I did. 

What did I do? 

Instead of showing care, I panicked. Instead of showing acceptance, I misunderstood him. Instead of showing patience, I rushed him. Instead of striving for connection, I isolated him. Instead of being consistent, I only showed up during times of crisis. Instead of showing respect, I told him he could have a day away from me to reflect on our relationship. Sorry, I mean I sometimes disrespected him.

I was a teenager, but we are all entering adulthood or are adults. We can move forward in a way that radically addresses the implications of the basic classroom power difference between professors and students, increases funding for the Counseling Center and Prevention Services, increases parental awareness of the mental health situation on the ground, creates mass, institutional-wide transparency and simultaneously works to foster a feeling of community, care and love among the student body.

It is not a utopia, and it is not impossible. I have seen it done outside of these university walls with far fewer resources in marginalized and punished communities.

Universities across the country are struggling with showing up for students and faculty alike. There has been an exponential increase of depression and anxiety among young adults, most steeply since COVID-19 and most starkly in Black and brown communities. As the student government observed in an email regarding a working group on mental health, LGBTQ folk experience a far greater prevalence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Faculty and staff too, with the never-ending repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, have seen a rise in challenges, stress and anxiety.

The question becomes, if so many of us are struggling, and if the Student Government, administration, faculty, staff and students care so much about the well-being of this campus, then how did we get here?

For many years, I never learned from my mistakes. I did not want to do the self-reflection necessary to learn because my mind was good at masking the things that might bring shame or threaten consistency. Change starts by asking what function the lack of honest self-reflection has traditionally played in the wider economy of the University. Are we centering students, staff and faculty or other, perhaps material, incentives?

Importantly, I did not do that unlearning by myself. I did it in community with others who struggled with being cared for, asking for care and knowing how to care for others because of contradictory understandings of how we are taught care should look like. A healthy relationship between me and the world around me, not just my brother, depended on me grappling with hard questions.

We can unlearn how we understand community and care here. The future of many of our peers depends on this. By creating a network of deconstructing and relearning what care means and feels like, from the face-to-face level all the way up to the chancellor, we can change this collective feeling of disconnection. A student-led care network is what I proposed in my speech at the wellness forum. Other students and I are working on creating a more coherent framework. If you want to be a part, reach out to me. We cannot do this alone.

Loneliness, apathy and disconnection are part of American culture. Only to the most intimate people in our lives do we stretch, cautiously, ounces of love. We can face this tendency together. A student-led care network is meant to address this.

I changed, so can we.

If you or someone you know is having a mental health emergency, the Counseling Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 919-515-2423. If you are in a crisis situation and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In the case of a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

The Counseling Center’s website offers free online screenings, a plethora of self-help resources regarding mental health and wellness concerns and a comprehensive list of campus services available for those who need guidance. To view an exhaustive list, visit counseling.dasa.ncsu.edu/resources.