By Jackie Liu
This article originally appeared in the The Relevance Report 2023, published by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations.
Download the full report here to see the emerging issues and top-of-mind topics and trends that will impact society, business, and communication in the coming year. TPG Senior Vice President Jackie Liu is also an adjunct professor in public relations and advertising at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
Even before the rocky years of pandemic, USC prioritized investing in and increasing mental health support services for students, faculty, and staff. These decisions are in lockstep with a rapid shift to redefine what it means to create a truly safe and inclusive academic community.
Erasing the stigma of seeking help and propelling the discussion of mental health into our cultural zeitgeist makes it possible for everyone to open up about issues, both big and small, that hinder their growth, confidence, happiness, and success.
The onus is on us — the entire academic community — to ensure we maintain an open dialogue about difficult and distressing topics, and shine a light on the nuances of hardship. Life can be tough and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But we must be mindful of the inherent challenges and hardships that come with academia, particularly as we evaluate this much-lauded Class of 2026, the university’s most diverse class in its history.
In 2022, USC included a record-number of first-generation students in its admission decisions, as well as an ever-increasing number of individuals who identify as Black, Latino, or Asian American and Pacific Islander.
Being the first in their family to attend college is a wonderful achievement, but we should be careful not to romanticize anyone’s story or elevate them as a “model” individual against their wishes. There are countless studies and anecdotal evidence that support a much less glamorous story. No student should feel any expectation to support a false narrative. We are long past the point of upholding tired tropes and stereotypes.
The transition to university life can be stressful for anyone, but for USC students, many of whom graduated at the top of their class, it may be downright jarring to meet so many new people who seem smarter and more accomplished. They start second-guessing their own success. Now, couple these insecurities with what they see on social media — including LinkedIn.
All of this is exponentially worse for students who haven’t followed the traditional prescribed timeline: starting college after high school and graduating in four years. When you feel out of step with your peers, you feel left out, unworthy, and unsuccessful.
Many of us are familiar with imposter syndrome. We know the symptoms include persistent nagging feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Individuals may feel undeserving of their achievements and frequently minimize their success. But it’s easy to see why this condition is frequently dismissed. It’s obviously normal to experience these feelings occasionally, but imposter syndrome goes far beyond that. At worst, individuals may be paralyzed with debilitating fears and paranoia of being outed as fraud.
Talking about mental health issues will only continue to be more relevant, especially as our incoming student body, faculty and staff find their voices. They need our support. They need to know they won’t be dismissed as overmedicated or mocked for being fragile. I know from experience that our Annenberg students appreciate feeling seen, heard, and understood when we gently remind them that there is help available whenever they need it, no matter the reason.
We’re not crossing boundaries by starting the conversation, or “seizing the awkward” as an opportunity to offer help; we’re building guardrails, creating foundational structures to guide our priorities, policies, and programs. It’s up to us to keep the mental health discussion relevant and top-of-mind. Future generations will only wonder why it took so damn long.