A letter from
alumni about mental health on campus
February 11, 2003
I am quite disappointed and surprised by the letter written by David
Dennison 42 suggesting that the Princeton admission office require
some minimum level of emotional stability in addition to other admission
criteria. This absurd recommendation is not only politically incorrect,
it is insensitive and lacks insight into the changing and growing needs
of a student body must we all be reminded about the terrible incident
with the young M.I.T. student who burned herself to death because she
was unable to get an appointment with university clinicians?
The Princeton community should be encouraged that students are pursuing
help in productive outlets (i.e., engaging in discourse with trained psychotherapists)
instead of other maladaptive ways of dealing with adversity. By accommodating
this student need and increasing counseling center staff, Princeton recognizes
that the unique pressures of being at an elite institution and learning
to cope with adversity are important skills to possess and can, at worst,
have life or death consequences.
The ability to cope is always a needed talent in our
changing world, and Princeton's way of coping is not to self-select emotionally
superior 18-year-olds (besides the difficulties in judging such criteria,
this would have serious ramifications upon admission standards), but to
provide a healthy environment with resources for students to use so that
they develop life-long habits to confront problems effectively.
I read with great interest the letter in which David Dennison
'42 suggested a minimum level of emotional stability as an admission
criterion. Perhaps applicants should be screened as well for family history
of epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, lest these
future leaders find that these medical conditions, too, might impair their
ability to cope in our changing world.
Or perhaps instead we should laud our current undergraduates, whose pressure
for A.P. courses, grades, and near-full-time extracurricular activities
dwarfs the standards to which we were held many decades ago. I have no
doubt that Princeton admits more than its share of internally motivated,
self-critical overachievers who have a penchant for the conditions broadly
labeled as "depression." Perhaps we should be glad that neuroscientific
research is demystifying the brain's chemistry, and in doing so, is destigmatizing
"mental illness." Perhaps we should admire these new Princetonians'
willingness to confront these issues through counseling and medication.
And perhaps we should be grateful for the university's response and support.
Indeed, the students who have the guts and the initiative to address these
conditions in their undergraduate days are, in fact, improving their ability
to cope in the "real" world.
I was dismayed in reading the December
4 issue of PAW to find that 45.6 percent of the students reported
feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function at least once during
the school year. The situation is so bad that Marvin Geller has had to
hire a staff of 10 to conduct the psychological and counseling services
At the risk of being politically incorrect, I would suggest
that the admissions office require some minimum level of emotional stability
in addition to the other admission criteria. The ability to cope with
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will always be
a needed talent in our changing world.
I read with interest the increased demand for mental
health services, not only at Princeton but at other elite universities
as well. I wonder if there is a correlation between this growing demand
and your admissions policy.
There is no question but that those who are admitted
to Princeton are "brilliant" and leaders in their own fields.
But are they mentally prepared? Perhaps, in the future, all those admitted
should undergo psychological testing as well as the numerous academic
tests they have to endure. Turning out a lot of gifted students with mental
problems doesn't seem to be a very intelligent approach to life.