Descriptions of today’s campus politics often use a mental-health vocabulary: “crazy,” “insane,” “lunatic,” etc. This terminology is employed for literary purposes to highlight the disconnect between campus life and the “real world.” No one believes that it reflects clinical assessments by certified professionals of actual students and faculty.
Nevertheless, this literary vocabulary may contain more than a scintilla of certifiable psychological truth. The phrase “the inmates are running the asylum” may be an accurate characterization. If this is, indeed, empirically correct, or at least partially true, strategies for curing this nonsense must confront mental illness. What’s the point of a rational defense of free speech if the listener is unable to grasp it?
Indeed, many of today’s campuses—especially expensive, “artsy” liberal arts schools—have more than a passing resemblance to the spas and sanatoriums depicted in Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization. Scull describes how, beginning in the mid 19th century, affluence and a sympathetic view of mental illness led to the establishment of institutions catering to the rich, radically unlike the madhouses warehousing hoi polloi. They were resort-like facilities for those tactfully described as suffering vague nervous disorders, and, as such, no stigma befell patients. Their existence allowed rich families to solve the embarrassment of disruptive children, spouses, and relatives, which was no small matter in a society where “odd” individuals could ruin a family’s social reputation. Why marry into a household with a lunatic in the family tree? It would be better to ship him off “to take the waters” under discreet medical supervision.
Today’s affluent and tuition-hungry colleges offer a similar service. What is to be done with dull-witted junior, with his penchant for drugs and fluid sexual identity? Keeping him at home, even in the basement, is highly stressful. So is pushing him out into the “real world” with a low-status, menial job. What will others think of such a “failed” family? In Victorian England, he might be sent to Ticehurst House Hospital, thus saving the family’s reputation. Now, at least for families who can afford it, today’s “eccentric” offspring can be shipped off to a rustic campus and earn a degree in Human Rights and Decolonization Studies—it only costs $72,000 per year, a bargain for everyone.
The rise of schools catering to the mentally disturbed is not mere speculation. Mental illness among youngsters is soaring. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, “The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in older adults.” A second published study echoes this conclusion: “After remaining stable during the early 2000s, the prevalence of mental health issues among U.S. adolescents and young adults began to rise in the early 2010s. These trends included sharp increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, self‐harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide, with increases more pronounced among girls and young women.”
Just walking around many of these hyper-expensive schools may confirm the nuttiness of the student body. It’s the modern equivalent of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516)—there are youngsters with bizarre multi-color hairdos, males in dresses with painted fingernails, and students from affluent homes covered in tattoos, among other outward traits hinting at inner problems. Many are keenly sensitive to anything that might, in the slightest degree, prove upsetting. A professor using the “wrong” pronoun earns a visit to the school’s counseling center or even a formal complaint of harassment. Campus life now resembles walking on eggshells; paranoia meets the quest for social justice.
These impressions are confirmed by what colleges themselves report. Statistics show, among other things, that some 1,100 students a year commit suicide (24,000 attempt it), 64% of students drop out of college due to mental health problems, and, during COVID, 90% of students experienced negative mental health symptoms, while 41% experienced depression (about 8% suffer major depressive disorders). How do you explain undergraduates who believe in pregnant men and women with phalluses?
Meanwhile, studies of drug abuse report increase levels of use, particularly among college students. According a 2018 study, for example, college students had the highest incidence of drug abuse (45%), followed by 12th graders (39%) and 10th graders (30%). Over the course of a year, more than two out of five college students used an illegal drug. College students’ drugs of choice, beyond alcohol and the now-ubiquitous marijuana, include tranquilizers such as diazepam and alprazolam, sedatives like triazolam and phenobarbital, various opioids, and, perhaps most dangerously, stimulants such as methylphenidate and amphetamines.
These abuse statistics do not consider the long-term effect of drug use. This may be particularly true for alcohol and marijuana, two of the most abused drugs on campus. While the data on regular pot use are mixed, the consensus seems to be that it impairs cognitive functioning. Several studies, including two large longitudinal studies, suggest that marijuana use can cause functional impairment in cognitive abilities, but this can depend on factors such as the age when use began or the length of use. Particularly relevant for academic life, some studies show that persistent pot use is associated with a long-term decline in IQ.
While it is impossible to draw a link between the rise of mental illness and specific campus behavior (e.g., shouting down a conservative speaker), there can be little doubt that today’s campus madness thrives where the psychologically troubled abound. There may well be a tipping point in which a campus “goes crazy” if the proportion of mentally disturbed students reaches, say, 25%. At that point, those suffering from psychological disorders can form school-funded clubs or Facebook groups. Conceivably, the hysteria over some minor incident such as an alleged racial slur becomes a form of self-medication, one that feeds on itself. It feels good to get all worked up, seize the moral high ground, gather in large groups and scream mindless slogans such as “Death to the Fascists,” and then return to the dorm feeling fulfilled.
Recognizing this “crazy” element in campus life indicates that the usual suggestions for restoring sanity may be of limited effectiveness. In such settings, campus debate is unlike a formal discussion in which each side offers up evidence and logical arguments to win the day. Rather, campus conflict may better resemble Bedlam, the notorious English lunatic asylum where visitors observed violent inmates in various states of madness.
Forget about trying to filter out those whose mental problems render them unfit for the life of the mind. Not only are there no tests for admissions officers to identify the disorders that undermine campus intellectual life, but, conceivably, those excluded might be worthy of admission—not all brilliant minds are 100% normal. Further, consider our newfound tolerance of those suffering from evident, even violent mental illness. Scull’s history of madness depicts how, beginning in the 1970s, “crazy people” were increasingly normalized via popular films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Now, observing classmates talking to themselves or hallucinating about grand conspiracies no longer instigates a 9-1-1 call. Nuttiness is an outgrowth of campus diversity.
The only solution is to recognize the nature of the enemy. There is an adage that irrationality cannot be overcome with rationality—this certainly applies to the modern campus. In principle, this acknowledgement of reality is no different than what military and police departments have long done when assessing the opposition. Defenders of reasoned discourse must accept that a certain portion of the opposition is driven by psychosis and must be dealt with accordingly. It is foolish to invent ever-new, erudite arguments to sway those whose minds are incapable of being swayed. The inmates are literally in charge of the asylum, at least part of the time.