by Apoorva Sekhar
When I moved to Geneva from India, a country where many of us still can’t talk openly about therapy in our own families, I understood mental health beyond the conversations of therapy and anxiety medications. I was surprised to know that there exists a healthy state of the mind too which nobody back home spoke about. Most of us from India related mental health only with the need for therapy and medications. We knew what a perfectly functioning hand and leg felt like but weren’t taught how the experience of a healthy mind could be.
On that note, back in May, when India went through the second wave of COVID, “I’m not in a state to submit my assignment on time this week, professor” became an email template for most of us. Everyday you’d wake up dreading a call from home because the moment the phone rang you’d know that your family’s probably bidding their final goodbyes to another loved one. These goodbyes back home often happened while you sat there in your room in Geneva, staring out of the window into the vast horizon of helplessness. It may not seem obvious, but reading each word on a paper or studying for an exam seemed like a tedious task because with each passing second, you’d be drowning yourself further into a paralysis of guilt, helplessness and the fear of distance.
Amidst this, one of our professors set up a call with some of us who couldn’t score well in a mid-term exam. Now, of course, I fit right into the Asian stereotype of ‘I need to get a good grade on all my papers to make my brown parents proud’ (no thanks to the Indian education system) and hence, I opened up the laptop with my sweaty, anxious palms and got myself out of the bed to attend the call. The professor greeted all of us and started discussing the answers right from the first question. I was waiting for them to ask ‘Are you all doing okay?’ or ‘Do you want to discuss how you could do better’. But to my surprise, mental health probably isn’t one of the parameters to pass an exam at IHEID.
And there I was again, staring blankly into my screen because the word document minimized on my laptop had the right answers to all the questions. I knew all the answers. I knew how to solve the problem sets. My inability to write the exam wasn’t because I didn’t get the formula right or because I didn’t understand the words on the question paper. It was way beyond that. As I gathered courage, holding back my outburst of tears, I told my professor on the call, “I’d like to point out that for some of us the reason for not doing well in this mid-term isn’t an academic one.” The professor was surprised. The solution I was offered was to approach my professor the next time I was feeling overwhelmed and ‘take a walk around the block and talk through the problem’.
And while I do appreciate and am grateful for the gesture, the problem here isn’t seeking help (which is tough enough to ask from your best friends, leave alone a professor you meet once a week). It’s the blatant ignorance of the fact that our mental health could also be a legitimate reason for not doing well on a paper. It is also the lack of understanding that academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that my inability to write a paper isn’t always rooted in me not being able to memorise theories and equations.
There needs to be a conversation amongst our professors which goes beyond sending students to one free session of therapy offered by the Student Services. There needs to be an understanding that the inability of a human being to do day to day tasks can also be an extremely overwhelming experience; That sometimes, even getting out of bed can be beyond the need to adhere to deadlines, grades and submissions on Moodle. It is crucial to realise that the cost of therapy in a city like Geneva, is almost equal to what some of us spend on groceries at Denner in a month and that explaining the situation of mental health in front of your entire class can also take an inordinate effort for some people.
The idea here isn’t to call out professors but to push for a greater understanding and starting a conversation in academic circles and spaces that aren’t and never will be accessible to us at the Institute during our time here as students. For many of us, Geneva is a foreign land and with it comes the unsettling experiences of unfamiliarity. When we look around, we don’t see our culture, our language, our traditions and being away from home is an added sense of discomfort already.
I have a beautiful set of supportive friends here. I try to involve myself in activities in the college which are also non-academic in nature. I have a supportive family back home. And yet, all that fails, on several occasions. And I know I’m not alone in this.
There needs to be a change starting as a conversation amongst our faculty because supporting our mental health is supporting our professional lives. Our mental health is not a ‘personal matter’. One should not wait for a country to hit its peak during COVID to organise group support spaces at the Institute. Conversations about mental health need to happen on a regular basis. Educating our faculty and staff about mental health cannot be a one-off event or a seminar. It is as important as publishing that research paper in that reputed journal. Our education and our ability to perform our best doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
It’s 2021 and yes, we refuse to be part of the hustle culture.
Apoorva Sekhar is the Events Co-ordinator for the Welfare Committee