Carnegie Mellon, Mental Illness, and Suicide

CollegeSuicideMental Illness

On Sunday, March 27, Elliot Glasgow was reported missing. Elliot was a first-year undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University. There was a frantic push on social media by parents, professors, students, and alumni to try to find him. A graduate student, Rajat Patra, was also missing for some time. Sadly both individuals were later found dead. While these events appear to be unrelated, they have left the Carnegie Mellon community in turmoil. I want to take a moment to share my thoughts.

First and foremost, my thoughts are with the friends and families of the deceased. It is my sincere hope they find peace, love, and support in this difficult time. We cannot begin to understand their pain, nor can our words mend their wounds.

I went to Carnegie Mellon. I am a Tartan. I graduated just three years ago (2013). I live less than two miles from campus. I occasionally provide guest lectures. I still have close ties to the university beyond my graduation. I am not far removed from my own undergraduate experience. In short, I feel relatively confident that my own experiences remain relatively unchanged from those of today's student.

It's orientation and your first full day on campus. Orientation counselors - crazy upperclassmen with enough energy that you would swear they drank a gallon of Red Bull - are banging on your door with pots and pans to wake you up for the first day of activities. Fast forward a few days and you're in full body paint, screaming at the top of your lungs, battling for a non-existent title of "best house" (dorm) judged solely on its members abilities to perform unrelated tasks like a watermelon shuffle or spoon-egg race.

Suddenly the fun is over. It's the Sunday before your first day of classes, and you can barely sleep because of the mixture of anxiousness and anxiety running through your blood... or maybe it's that phrase you kept hearing all week. It sounded like a joke at first, but maybe it wasn't? All the upperclassmen kept telling you:

Eat, sleep, or be social — pick two because you can't have all three.

Unfortunately, you very quickly learn it's the truth. Carnegie Mellon is complacent in facilitating an incredibly stressful environment propagated by a culture that encourages overworking, overcommitting, and overexerting. There is no such thing as a "40-hour" week. It's a 120 hour week, and anything less means you are underperforming. "Busy-ness" is a measure of achievement, and the less sleep you get, the more bad-ass you are. You are constantly told how CMU "prepares you for the real world", but the irony is they do the opposite. CMU ruins you for the real world. The culture and mentality actively encourages burnout. These are the first few phases of burnout:

  • Compulsion to prove yourself

    CMU's "everything is a competition" mentality creates a delusion that you must constantly work to prove yourself. You already got the job. You have nothing to prove. Let your true talent shine.

  • Over-working

    Driven by that compulsion to prove yourself, you start overworking. Afterall, the best way to get an edge on your co-workers is to work 80 hours per week. It's cool though - that's still 40 hours less than you worked in college.

  • Self-neglect

    The recurrent cycle to prove yourself eventually drives you to only work harder and more frequently. Your ability to have a social life decreases. It was always a funny joke that the computer science majors at CMU didn't shower. In hindsight, I wonder if that's because they didn't have the time...

  • Revision of values

    This is a very simple, but crucial tipping point in the burnout cycle. This is where "work" becomes more important than "family". Your job replaces your existing value system. At CMU, there are scheduled times where parents are encouraged to visit. Aside from that, students are often too busy to spend time with their family. Students are often forced to work 20 hours on a Saturday or Sunday just to complete their regularly-assigned work. During finals, it's exponentially worse.

  • Withdrawal

    Having given up on social interactions completely, you turn to drugs or alcohol for solace. You are often left hopeless and searching for direction. CMU tries very hard to hide the fact that they have one of the worst drug and alcohol abuse of any college I've ever visited. Massive state schools have far less drug abuse and addicts than CMU. When your reality sucks, you try to escape it.

  • Emptiness

    Literally having nothing left, you latch onto that makes you feel like your life is not in pieces.

  • Depression + Burnout

    You have given up. You are exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and questioning life. In severe cases, you contemplate suicide because it looks like the only option to escape from this endless hell.

Having too much stress in your life makes it easy for even the most emotionally stable humans to fall into severe depression or develop previously non-existent mental illness.

I hate that term... "illness". Illness implies there is something wrong with you. Somehow you are "abnormal"; you have a "disorder"; you are "sick". Some studies have reported that one in three college students reported some form of depression or anxiety. That means ten students in a class of 30 are struggling with some form of mental illness. You aren't alone.

My freshman year was one of the most depressing times of my life, yet you will be hard-pressed to find a picture of me where I'm not smiling ear-to-ear. For all appearances, I was happy. My grades were fantastic (I had a 4.0), I had an amazing group of friends, and I was even a member of some social clubs. But internally, I was slowly dying from the inside-out. While I liked my professors, I hated my major (computer science at the time). I was constantly lying to my friends and family about my sexuality. I was drinking, a lot. Turns out that drugs and alcohol are one of the most common ways humans cope with mental illness, so it comes as no surprise that Carnegie Mellon has a massive drug and alcohol problem. But the university does a really good job of sweeping that under the rug.

Fast-forward to my sophomore year. I changed my major. I came out of the closet. I reduced my drinking habits, and I stopped using alcohol as an escape from reality. It's difficult for me to pin-point exactly what changed or how I did it, but I decided that I would be in control of my own happiness. I signed up to be one of those crazy orientation counselors I talked about earlier.

Unfortunately I have more experience with depression and suicide than I would like to admit. I've attempted it, I've prevented it, and I've failed to prevent it. If you are fortunate enough that you do not struggle with depression or mental illness, please be an ally to those around you. Because the only thing worse than losing someone because you tried to help is losing someone because you didn't.

I don't regret my decision to attend Carnegie Mellon. I met some of the smartest and most amazing people my time there. I learned from some of the brightest and most caring professors who are leaders in their field. I was given opportunities that could not be guaranteed at other institutions, and I am forever grateful. I think that experience is still achievable without the stressful and demanding culture, and I challenge Carnegie Mellon to take steps to change it.

Seth Vargo is a Developer Advocate at Google. Previously he worked at HashiCorp, Chef Software, CustomInk, and a few Pittsburgh-based startups. He is the author of Learning Chef and is passionate about reducing inequality in technology. When he is not writing, working on open source, teaching, or speaking at conferences, Seth enjoys spending time with his friends and advising non-profits.