Privilege or Pressure

Harvard is often perceived as a place for the smartest and most privileged people in the world. And yet “Nearly half of the Harvard College student body felt depressed during the last academic year and almost 10 percent of undergraduates reported that they had considered suicide”.

Recently I've come across numerous pieces dealing with mental health in males particularly (thanks to Lachlan for the link), student depression from pressure, and more and more people we often idealise as being at the top of their game are opening up about their darkest experiences (from authors Matt Haig and Tim Ferriss).

At the same time there is a common thread running parallel which may not be unrelated. That is, feminist and other perspectives on privilege. I’m not arguing that feminist perspectives are wrong, but there is an element of them I think is damaging. The two things are incompatible and I don’t have an answer to resolve the conflict.

Social identity theory - Our group is diverse and of this mind, seeing the good qualities. The Other group is all like that.

This term from psychology is applied to numerous contexts, most obviously when We identify as individuals with agency and see Them as an enemy. This is natural, and simplifies practices in sociology, but the same principle can also be beneficial in propaganda during war. The ability to identify groups is useful in some contexts. But maybe we can reevaluate how do we perceive the privileged.

White  people, males, and those at university are not only perceived to be privileged by the community at large, but by themselves as well. Goal focused people, people with hope for prosperity are driven. But what happens when it all goes to shit, when they can’t realise their dream?

It turned out that people who had more of these self-focused hopeful thoughts were much more likely to try and kill themselves.

“I’m never going to achieve those goals.”
“I start losing confidence after winning in the game of academics for so long.”
“If I fuck up uni I’ve wasted so much time and money.”

We map our views in relation to the rest of the world. At its simplest, if our belief is that university is unlikely to be an option and you get in that’s a remarkable achievement, and if you don’t, no dramas. But on the other hand if it’s expected you will get in and you don’t it can be devastating.

The recognition of the problem may be enough to grasp perspective on the pressure an individual takes on. We certainly cannot blame society or feminism and detract from their intended outcomes, but in understanding their impacts on an individual level, perhaps we can make sense of why mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent.


For support in Australia there is Beyond Blue and Lifeline. In addition there is also an emergency service called SOS, 4780 8100 to assist in quickly making appointments within 24 to 72 hours.
MoodGym is an online service that delivers many of the same ideas as CBT in an online platform. The platform is maintained and run through ANU, and has translations into other languages.

Additional resource on mens mental health from RN.


Further reading for the geeks.

The pressure is perhaps more extreme in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. What once were provincial areas are now very competitive achievement-focused societies. The expectation is that you become respected, popular, and highly sought after. What comes with this is unusually high expectations of yourself, which your self-esteem then relies on. The massive growth in South Korea has resulted also in a massive change in mental health problems in the country.

A place with more research and history into the subject is Japan. Both Korea and Japan have an all together different approach to the issues from the West, but the underlying problems is the same - pressure. And the outcomes differ from the west dramatically though.

What may now be seen as part of the past in rituals like hara-kiri or kamikaze, still have an impact on the culture. In Japanese and Korean the term human-being is more like human-in-between, which permeates the whole culture. Coming from ideas of yin-yan or in-yo, the concept of death is very different from views in the west.

What this means is that in Japan it is still appropriate for a senior to “go down with the ship” or commit suicide when a company fails. Honour in suicide is something still hard to relate to.

Japanese (from Chinese) talk of heaven, earth and the person all being connected. They do no differentiate in the same way as the West, which further alludes to the fact that our way of disseminating certain information is explicitly cultural.

Volume 3 of Bansenshukai, Senshin, “the correct mind”, highlights this very clearly,

once you are born, there is nothing better than leaving this world and this is even more true for the mean and poor of this life, which of course, goes without saying.
Those who are not aware that you will be at ease tend to worry about it and mourn death - how uneducated they are.

The cultural differences are fascinating. Yet is interesting to see that perceived privilege, responsibility and pressure are underlying causes for mental health issues universally.