Over the last couple of weeks, pundits have publicly attacked university students for being whiny, coddled crybabies in the face of the presidential election. Following others (see here, here, and here), Rob Port a local Republican blogger attacked a neighboring university, North Dakota State University, for sending out an email informing its students that counseling services were available to anyone who was having trouble dealing with the results. This student weakness was so horrifying to a a local letter writer, that she felt the need to both describe her own time as a college student as strong and noble, and then to tell students who need someone to talk to to “get a grip” and “find God.”
Even if only a small numbers of students actually sought counseling, these attacks are dangerous and ignorant. They are based on the outdated premise that asking for psychological help is a form of weakness. It is not. Asking for help requires great strength and it is noble for anyone to act to improve his or her own well-being. Part of what makes human beings special is our desire and ability to improve ourselves. Part of what makes us fragile is that our idea of what improvement is, is often distorted by, at best, imperfect, and at worst, destructive experiences. A good therapist can help people overcome a difficult childhood, trauma, poor judgment and self-centered blinders. Personal improvement is hard that takes much more than personal reflection. Shouldn’t we encourage people to work on themselves?
It seems odd to me that outspoken Republicans would belittle counseling at all, since mental illness lies at the core of their party’s defense of the second amendment. If we only had better mental health in this country, they insist, there would be fewer mass shootings. So, why aren’t they on the forefront of providing counseling to anyone who needs it, regardless of the circumstances?
Calling mass-shooters mentally ill is not particularly helpful, since only a tiny portion of them mentally ill are violent, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the gun-rights advocates are correct. Wouldn’t it then be the case that their public attack on those who seek therapy only makes it harder to find people who might be thinking of using guns against others before it is too late. Why would already unstable people seek help if they know they will be ridiculed for it? Why would angry potential shooters not become angrier in the face of public shaming? Future mass murderers may, in fact, be students at NDSU right now, telling themselves that wanting to seek help is actually worse than going it alone. Making fun of them will only confirm their paranoid idea that they can only make an impact through violence.
In response, someone might suggest that therapy should be reserved for those who really need it, but that any student who is thrown by election results is nothing but a “pampered snowflake” (Port’s words, not mine.) This really goes to show how little he actually understands about the recent election. It disregards how legitimately frightened some students now are of being deported, of losing their health insurance, of being denied a college education, and of being more likely to be the victim of a hate crime. Students who need to talk to a professional after the election are not using victimization as a weapon, as he suggests. They are using it to increase their ability to tolerate difference–difference that scares them because it is a difference that targets them.
Political policy aside, though, I simply need to express my shock that anyone would shame students at all, for caring so deeply about politics that they need counseling in the face of an electoral loss. Thirty-nine percent of eligible North Dakotans didn’t vote in this election. In other words, more than one third of eligible voters couldn’t even bother to have an opinion on what is likely the single most important election of a generation. Many of the people attacking the college students for being weak are themselves avid and well-informed political commentators. Why would they turn around and belittle those who feel the awesome power and intimacy of political decision-making?
Ridiculing those with deep patriotism and civic duty does not increase political participation. It fact, it seems to me that the problem does not lie with those who need counseling after elections disappoint them, but with those who are so disconnected from democracy that they can take or leave whoever is in office. If you don’t need counseling in the face of the dangers we now face, I suspect something is probably wrong with you.
College students are trying to find something to believe in, just like the rest of us. They are seeking a vocation and a sense of self, as we all are, and just like everyone else, they are frequently devastated by their own shortcomings and failures. When we attack them for the sake of cheap political points or to foster a condescending feeling of superiority, we are undermining that which makes us all most human. We are belittling our ability to better our own conditions and to make the world a better place.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein