For reasons I won't divulge, I recently spent a week in a mental hospital located near Knoxville.
The facility is well-designed, clean, staffed with sympathetic people and filled with a range of interesting patients.
If you have ever felt like university life is making you crazy, it probably is. So it goes, as Vonnegut was fond of saying.
I met a federal bounty hunter; a participant in the 1960s' race riots; a man recently laid off from work; an elderly lady whose power of attorney was leveraged against her; an English major deep in debt; a pregnant woman withdrawing from heroin; a well-read hipster; a toothless minister; life-long addicts; professionals, wives, husbands, epileptics, paranoiacs, and most of all, the sane. And, I learned poker.
Several patients resembled characters from "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" in thought, deed and appearance. I met Nurse Ratched. Jack Nicholson drinks a lot of milk.
What I noticed most about these people was their overarching condition of sanity. It used to be a mainstay of mental health that people are sane but the world is crazy. Now things are a bit different.
Most of these patients are normal people – albeit from the entire spectrum of socioeconomic class – whose lives simply reached a crisis, the definition of which is the collapse of a system.
Stress, acute poverty and actions wholly external to themselves landed them in the psych ward — not innate dysfunction.
At least this is true for most of them. The man who thought I was Jesus Sensei Divine probably had a chronic mental disorder. The rest did not.
Any of these people could have been UT students.
As we graduate into a recessed workforce amid a climate of talk saying the graduate degree is worthless and the debt pool is massive, the stress of being a student could land almost anyone at that small, private hospital.
When I was visiting UT's counseling center, I would regularly see my friends in the waiting room — these were people whose minds, I thought, were solid, integrated, stress-free. And they usually were.
When I asked them why they needed counseling, their replies went along the lines of "things just get tough to juggle." Handling this and that, an 18-hour credit load and part-time work, temporary poverty, inexperience being away from home, issues with sexual orientation, and yes, drinking, were common experiences among some of my friends. And for all of these they needed either psychology or psychiatry to support them in their university endeavors.
This is the human condition, or at least a novel part of it. Americans consume anti-depressants and other psychiatric medications at the highest rates in the developed world, work the longest hours, and regularly report some of the highest levels of stress. The do-or-die attitude of the workforce reinforces this dependence — the safety net is small and full of holes — and university is nothing but a microcosm of the workforce.
Pessimism is the science of reality but it need not be the defining condition of our country, either for its youth or its establishment.
UT offers psychological and psychiatric counseling on campus at the Counseling Center. And may I recommend Julian Jaynes' book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"?
Jeremy Brunger is a senior in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.