Campus mental health ignores emotional intelligence

During my first month at USC, I watched Gilmore Girls on Netflix — all six seasons, with 22 episodes per season. I followed that closely with all seven seasons of the Aaron Sorkin masterpiece The West Wing and all seven seasons of the NBC fan-favorite Parks and Recreation, all in the span of a few short months. As Miley Cyrus would have said, I couldn’t stop, and wouldn’t stop.

College is a time of bingeing. We’ve always known this. College students are notorious for binge-drinking — a national survey published by the National Institute for Health reports that two out of every three college students engaged in binge drinking over the past month. And when freshmen have unlimited access to dining halls, it’s no surprise that the infamy of the Freshman 15 is associated with binge eating habits that carry on throughout college. At this time in our lives, unhealthy habit follows unhealthy habit — and it’s time we realize that cultivating the emotional intelligence that we so often lack is crucial to improving mental health conversations on campus.

Today, we engage in far more than traditional types of bingeing. If my television habits prove anything, it’s that binge watching is an increasingly real phenomenon, recently enabled by decentralized control of television from networks to users. Students even engage in binge studying — all-nighters before tests and stupefying blocks of last-minute cramming all indicate a pattern of studying that neglects the behavior for long stretches of time, then engages in it excessively, all at once.

Psychologists have drawn connections between binge behaviors and those of addiction. A 2003 report entitled “Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor” published in Scientific American found that users developed addictive behaviors from the use of television as an escape from busy and stress-filled daily life. With the advent of Netflix and HBO Go, this asylum-seeking can last even longer and be more in-depth than ever before.

Moreover, both binge eating and binge drinking are diagnosable disorders that stem from depression, anxiety and stress — the same factors that led Netflix enthusiasts to binge watch television. Catherine Garceau, a former Olympic athlete, told Her Campus that binge eating was a form of escape.

“Because you haven’t figured out other ways to relax yourself in the world, you’re going to use the food to sedate yourself,” Garceau said.

The psychological factors that lead to binge disorders suggest that, as college students, we can’t just pass over our binge behaviors like we do the time between episodes on Netflix. Perhaps these behaviors are indicative of an inability to process stress within a larger culture inundated with constant pressures from social, academic and professional life.

Stress management is nothing new. Today, we thrive — or don’t thrive — in a realm with hundreds of competing priorities, every day. But truly keeping these demands in check comes from more than writing down five goals a day or downloading Google Calendar. Stress management — as a skill — fundamentally comes from emotional intelligence, the ability to process and manage emotions, according to Psychology Today. And unfortunately, though K-12 has taught us how to build traditional “classical” intelligence, many of us lack skills even to assess our own mental health, let alone nurture self-esteem and self-worth.

So it’s this aspect of mental health — the importance of emotional intelligence — that is so often lost on conversations concerning mental well-being on campus. Mindfulness and meditation are important practices, but outside the context of emotional intelligence, their benefits to mental health are limited at best.

Longstanding mental health advocacy — adding more counselors in the Engemann Student Health Center, ensuring mental health professionals are culturally competent and decreasing the stigma of discussing mental health — is crucial to improving resources for students on campus. But the next step is for advocates to critically examine whether the University has created a mechanism to foster longstanding skills that create emotional intelligence. Factoring this aspect into our bigger conversation would demonstrate a commitment to making mental wellness sustainable while students are on campus and for years after they leave the gates of the University.

Sonali Seth is a sophomore majoring in economics and policy, planning, development. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. “’SC, What’s Good?” runs every other Thursday.