Constant news of Kavanaugh hearings endangers students’ mental health

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Courtesy of Alice Feng/The Occidental

On the tense and stressful Thursday of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the entire nation watched what the mainstream media proclaimed as one of the most important days in United States history. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in which Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, testified, sparked mixed reactions and traumatic feelings across the Occidental College community.

From triggering the memories of sexual assault victims to angering those who sympathized with Ford, her narration of the encounter resonated with many within the Occidental community. The ordeal she faced after the incidents bore striking similarities to the responses to most victims of sexual assault. While it is important to engage with and learn from the news, the process of learning ceases to be productive when it endangers students’ mental health.

On the day of the Kavanaugh hearing, I woke up to an email reminder from Dean of Students Rob Flot that the hearing was taking place, which made me feel an urgent need to keep up with the news and added stress to my day. Flot’s broadcast email to the college community read, “I’m sure that many of you are aware of and viewing today’s important hearings regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.” The email enforced the necessity to watch or catch up with the hearings as a national issue.

Dean Flot’s email continued, “Surely there are strong feelings and reactions that may be elicited due to the nature of the hearings.” He implied the need to have strong feelings about the hearing, although I did not wake up with them. His message had the good intention of reminding students of the resources available to see them through this tough experience, but the message consumed my entire day. I could not focus on my academic work for the day because of my burning desire to follow the news and the constant notifications on the subject that popped up on my screens. This made my day unproductive, and I believe it did the same to other students.

The entire process had an enormous toll on students who might feel triggered by or uncomfortable with the topic. The hearings have become the center point of most conversations on campus, and everybody has an opinion on the topic to share. My peers have expected me to be updated with every nitty-gritty bit of the story, and my failure to do so elicits fear that they will view me as an unconcerned citizen. Most people who are overwhelmed by the topic exclude themselves from the conversation by avoiding their peers or their social media. This trend is traumatic to students.

Most professors took the opportunity to use their classes as a means of starting a conversation on the topic. Their classrooms were unfriendly to students who could not tolerate any discussion on the topic. According to some students’ accounts, professors tried very hard to find ways to make connections between class topics and the Kavanaugh hearing. Some compared the trauma of the hearing to the collective traumatic histories of citizens of repressive states. Others compared it to the liberation of the black identity from that of their former colonizers. I believe that all professors have the best intentions in stimulating a critical assessment of the hearings. However, it should have been very clear to them that some students might not feel comfortable with the topic and that this might hinder their academic participation.

Some professors informed their students they could opt out of attending classes if they felt uncomfortable with the Kavanaugh discussions, and others mentioned the campus resources available for students facing mental and psychological ordeals from the hearing. I appreciate the accommodations that professors and the college facilitated to reduce the psychological impact, and I do not argue that it is wrong for professors to make these connections and have these discussions as they deem necessary. However, some professors were too quick to use their students as an audience to share their frustrations about the hearings.

These conversations stirred up an already emotional and stressful day. It is important to take preventative measures to either reduce or avoid the psychological and emotional distress that arose from it. Professors and the college should create optional spaces, such as workshops, on the Kavanaugh hearing. That way, students who are interested in having those discussions can have them without endangering others’ mental health. Students must keep in mind that our peers do not welcome all topics at all times, especially political ones. We should be mindful of the time and space within which we have certain discussions. Finally, we must speak up for others when they are not able to voice their discomfort about topics like the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing.

Malcolm Sowah is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at msowah@oxy.edu.