Why Are Ivy League Schools Pushing So Many Bright Minds To The Breaking Point?

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Mental Health Imapcts Of Ivy League Schools

On a university campus already infamous for its high-pressure environment, Yale students have another challenge to overcome this year — grieving the loss of one of their fellow classmates. 

Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum was 18 and in her first year at Yale when she died by suicide in mid-March. She has been described as kind and witty and had dreams of sitting on the Supreme Court, like her idol, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Anchorage native was clearly an intelligent young woman, ready for the challenge of taking on an Ivy League education, but is now the face of countless college students who suffer until their breaking point, dealing with the pressure of one of the country’s top schools.

Her loss has stirred up outrage and criticism from friends and fellow students who feel abandoned and betrayed by their university’s mental health support infrastructure. 

Students like Shaw-Rosenbaum are dying by suicide at alarmingly high rates across Ivy League schools. 

Known for their prestigious academia, these schools educate some of the world’s brightest minds. But in doing so, they compromise the emotional needs of students by facilitating a culture of burnout and mental fatigue. 

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The true cost of an Ivy League education

In 2017, seven Columbia University students had died by suicide by the second semester of the school year. At Harvard, rates of suicide attempts are twice as high as among the general population.

A scathing 2018 report from the Ruderman Family Foundation ranked the level of mental health support given to college students, and none of the Ivy League schools earned higher than a D grade. 

These institutions and their rigid operating systems leave students in a constant competition to outdo themselves and each other academically while their health deteriorates in the process. 

We spoke to Dr. Elayne Daniels, a psychologist who completed her predoctoral, postdoctoral, and advanced postdoctoral fellowships at the Yale University School of Medicine, about the mental health impacts of attending schools defined by their expectations for success.

“The prospect of being selected to join an elite group sounds appealing, especially in advance,” Daniels tells us. “However, the reality of such an environment is rarely coveted or prize-worthy. Being part of a college environment defined by success can derail natural development.”

The pressure to perform in these highly competitive scenarios means that success often ends up being defined by grades or class placements rather than any personal desires. 

The country’s most promising intellectuals are pit against each other to the point that their best never feels good enough. 

Daniels has worked in the mental health department of an Ivy League school and with other college students but says that Ivy League students seem to face unique and overwhelming pressure.

“The universal presenting problem at the Ivy League school was ‘not being good enough-itis’. The students were used to being the best in their high school, in their town, or even in their state,” she says.

“They were not used to being in a community where everyone essentially was an outlier at home and school due to their talents and intelligence. At the Ivy League school, they were just one of thousands of exceptionally talented people.”

This pushes the standard up a notch and forces students to reach unattainable goals just to stand out. 

“They felt different versions of the same lament — that they are like everyone else, with nothing special or unique to contribute,” Daniels says, “There were ongoing comparisons between students that often caused self-esteem to plummet.”

The impacts of this pressure manifests in a range of disturbing ways for students across Ivy League schools. 

“The psychological impact can include chronic overwhelm, feelings of inadequacy due to constantly comparing oneself to others, depression, anxiety, and social concerns,” Daniels tells us. “Coping behaviors can develop that are problematic in and of themselves.”

Daniels cites a number of issues from eating disorders to self-injury that manifest from the mental health impacts of elite education. 

But one particularly troubling coping strategy is drug abuse. According to one survey of Ivy League students, concerns over academic standards have pushed many to use stimulants for exams, essays, and more. 

18% of students admitted to misusing a prescription stimulant for an academic purpose at least once while in college. 

Other research shows 36% of Yale students and 36.6% of Columbia University students have reported taking illicit drugs while in college. 

Ivy League schools are backed by financial donations and costly fees yet meaningful investment in mental health support is lacking. 

“Typically mental health services on campus are available for a handful of sessions at most,” Daniels tells us, “There is often a considerable wait before the first appointment. Rarely are there adequate emergency services available, other than calling 911.”

As a close friend of Shaw-Rosenbaum took to social media to request other Yale students to share their stories of depression and suicidal ideation, personal accounts flooded in of students whose personal stories expose the severe lack of care given to students by the faculty.

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“I had to leave school for my mental health,” one student wrote, “I went to the triage office in the counseling center on campus several times only to be spoken to like I was dangerous for being mentally ill and was explicitly told it was not their job to help me.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation detailed that Ivy League schools regularly push students presenting with mental health problems to take a leave of absence and many place minimum lengths that prevent students from returning to school easily. 

While this can be beneficial to some, it allows schools to deflect responsibility and discriminate against students with mental illness by blocking them from accessing an education. 

Some universities even ban students from visiting campus while on leaves of absence, further detaching them from friends and support systems, and adding stigma and isolation to mental illness

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This was echoed on social media as Yale students detailed their difficulty in accessing support and exposed how the college only seeks to help certain students.

“I look at this post and think 'that could have so easily been me' if Yale hadn't deemed me functional enough to save,” another student wrote as she detailed how specific staff and students helped her while Yale’s administration stood by. 

Mitigating the mental health impacts of an elite education is part of the institution's duty of care.

Daniels says that as the awareness around mental health issues increases, catering to the needs of students is life-saving.

She tells us that Yale offers a “Happiness” course, taught by Dr Laurie Santos who also runs a podcast called “The Happiness Lab.” Designed to prevent burnout, the course is one of Yale’s most popular classes.  

The popularity of the course is proof that the demand for coping mechanisms and mental health care is there, even if schools are not willing to acknowledge it. 

“As college students’ mental health needs increase, more mental health supports are needed. This is not optional,” Daniels says. “The stresses and academic, social, and financial pressures of college can be fatal for students — whether due to suicide, drug and alcohol involvement, or risky behavior.”

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If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal urges or depression, please encourage them to get help and contact the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.