Recently, everyone’s favorite waistcoated self-help author Jordan Peterson took a break from mistakenly tweeting out porn and declaring war on paper towel conservation to pose a “deadly serious question”:
Is there a relationship between increased incidence of mental health struggles among the college population and a decadeslong uptick in percentages of undergraduate students and college administrators who are female? Or are these things two unrelated phenomena? Ostensibly, this query lies within Peterson’s official bailiwick of psychology, but it’s ambiguous nonetheless. Does he mean, as one jokester put it in a reply to his tweet, that “the presence of too many ladies” drives everyone insane, including the men? Or is it that, because most, if not all, ladies are already chaos banshees and we now make up a decent majority of the college population, ipso facto ergo “campus mental health has never been worse”? And either way, where is this fresh hell of discourse coming from?
Peterson’s original tweet linked to an aggressively headlined summary, on the right-leaning education blog the College Fix, of an aggressively headlined excursus published earlier this month in the right-leaning City Journal by commentator Heather Mac Donald, who expounds at length on the deleterious “feminization” of the American campus. (This was then signal-boosted by conservative provocateur Christopher Rufo on his YouTube and Substack, before, finally, landing on Peterson’s Twitter, thus completing its beautiful life cycle in the right-wing microbiome.)
For Mac Donald, the social work–based curriculum vitae of recently appointed New York University President Linda Mills—and the mere existence of numerous other female administrators at major American universities, the names and titles of whom take up a full paragraph in her essay—provide abject proof of what she sees as “an epochal change whose consequences have yet to be recognized.” All of this female leadership, she argues, leads to a campus environment that offers a “co-dependent relationship” between female staff and students, “united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma.”
Neither Peterson nor Mac Donald references “What Is the Longhouse?,” a February post from the conservative religious magazine First Things, bylined by the anonymous author L0m3z, but their posts bear the stark imprint of that essay’s thesis that society at large is suffering from “the remarkable overcorrection of the last two generations toward social norms centering feminine needs and feminine methods for controlling, directing, and modeling behavior.” Because women are now “overrepresented” in so many professions (including the hallowed halls of academe), so too is their tendency toward being gravely offended by anything that treads on their “zealotry of preferences.” “Cancel culture” is nothing more than speech norms “enforced through punitive measures typical of female-dominated groups––social isolation, reputational harm, indirect and hidden force.” The “Longhouse theorem” seems to provide the perfect scaffolding for Mac Donald et al. to alternately imply and say aloud: Mental health—both the infrastructure built to help promote it, and the very idea of it as a valid topic of concern—is for women, because women tend toward crazy.
“The more females’ ranks increase” in the administration and faculty of universities, Mac Donald posits, “the more we hear about a mass nervous breakdown on campus.” The sole piece of evidence she offers for this claim, beyond correlation, is that “female students disproportionately patronize the burgeoning university wellness centers, massage therapies, relaxation oases, calming corners, and healing circles.” (Without numbers and a link to sources to back it up, Mac Donald’s claim would require a full rewrite in my freshman composition class. Also, given that she’s just said that female students make up the literal majority of students on campus, wouldn’t this supposed disproportionate patronage just be the natural end result of these demographics?)
To Rufo’s credit, when he approaches this same trope, he insists that he has “one hundred percent sympathy for any students … that are going through significant psychological challenges,” and that “psychotherapy is an important tool.” Still, he believes that mental health disorders are now a cudgel the supposedly intolerant denizens of the typical university wield for more woke cred in their professional bios and that, thanks to this female bias on campus, the “victim/victimizer” narrative takes place “on the axis of psychology,” with the “traumatizer” and the “traumatized” as its “fundamental dynamic.” That is, not only do women on campus seek out more mental health help—the entire milieu of “mental health help” now dictates campus culture at large.
Rufo’s primary example of how this works is the tiny, publicly funded liberal-arts school New College of Florida, whose hostile takeover by Governor Ron DeSantis—earlier this year, he installed Rufo as a trustee, along with five other conservatives bent on transforming the place—has made it an unhappy metonym for the American college culture wars. After all, Rufo argues, women outnumber men 2 to 1 in New College’s 600-student population, and “approximately one-quarter of students in the course of a recent school year engaged in counseling or psychotherapy through the student counseling and health center.” The numbers speak for themselves! Of course, this is not to say that women are bad. “Women,” Rufo cautions, “are an essential category of being.” It’s just that our tendency to amplify a “therapeutic narrative” on campus, to turn it into a therapeutic space, is undesirable. (As an example of how this works, Rufo describes his—honestly understandable—initial hostile reception by a female provost after DeSantis installed him.)
What I find most interesting, and potentially harmful, about these arguments is not the usual hackneyed hand-wringing about safe spaces and trigger warnings and alleged “victim identities” ruining wholesome college fun for Pi Kappa Alphas everywhere. It’s how, even with all the rather disingenuous caveats about how of course mental health is important, individuals in conservative circles seem to view some percentage—what percentage?—of these young people’s mental health issues as a mostly invented women’s problem. This is evident in the very terminology Mac Donald uses, itself “feminized” in a way that is straight outta Vienna. In addition to using obsolete, gendered nomenclature such as “nervous breakdown,” Mac Donald contrasts this literally hysterical state with its purported binary opposite: the worldview of a better kind of person, one who can do what a “feminized bureaucracy” will never tell them to do—“grow up and get a grip.”
And then, of course, there’s this: “Females on average score higher than males on the personality trait of neuroticism, defined as anxiety, emotional volatility, and susceptibility to depression.” (Again, Mac Donald cites zero evidence in this essay, requiring me to return this freshman composition assignment without credit.) “Mentioning this long-accepted psychological fact,” she continues, “got James Damore fired from Google.”
Like Heather Mac Donald, I am a mere English major, and so I thought it prudent to consult some actual, practicing psychologists about just how long-accepted this fact is. “This was the ‘long-accepted fact’ around the time that Freud was communicating with Ferenczi about what a wild time Ferenczi must have been having kissing his patients,” says Laura Wynn, a New York–based psychotherapist. “We’ve moved on a bit since.”
What is accepted fact, however, is that women seek out mental health treatment more than men do. Megan Marks, a licensed psychologist who worked in university counseling centers for 12 years, pointed me to some helpful statistics from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. While most students who receive care visit their respective counseling centers only once, just over 63 percent of those seeking out any kind of mental health resources in college do nevertheless identify as women. (Three percent of people in this group identify as nonbinary; less than 1 percent identify as trans, a fact that may surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to other types of recent campus-related outrage.)
That percentage of students seeking help who are female lines up quite well with the percentage of undergrads who are female (59.5 percent in 2021). But Marks notes that it’s “expected that women will connect to and express a wider range of emotions than those that identify as male,” while males are discouraged from “connecting to their emotions or seeking help with their emotions. Therefore,” she says, “it is not surprising that women seek support when they are experiencing emotional challenges.” She adds, “There is often a lack of tolerance for women’s emotional responses,” such as crying after an exam, “and therefore women are also encouraged to seek help much sooner than men.”
Marks points out that men on campus may seek out fewer mental health services—but statistically, men (not just on campus, but everywhere) self-medicate more, have higher incidences of substance use, and have a rate of suicide almost four times higher than for women. Indeed, suicide—a distinctly masculinized epidemic, if I may borrow a phrase—may be the most extreme consequence of the antiquated conservative rhetoric surrounding mental health, both on campus and off.
“The idea that mental health is a pseudoscience,” Wynn explains, or that providers’ job is to “confirm clients’ ‘victim identities,’ ” as Rufo and Mac Donald imply, “is deeply damaging both to marginalized and privileged communities.” In addition to the risk of suicide, she says, “stress and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, untreated psychosis, and mania reduce life expectancy and worsen health outcomes across the board.”
In extreme and visible cases, when someone is “acting erratically and no one wants to look them in the eyes, people are very supportive of mental health care and someone ‘getting the help they need.’ However,” Wynn points out, “when it serves the purpose of conservative ideology, it seems like they can feel free to invalidate the field as they see fit.” The result? Individuals who need help are less likely to reach out, and those reticent individuals tend to be men. Which brings us back to that deeply disturbing suicide rate.
This is why this recent evolution in conservative rhetoric around “woke campuses” is worth some attention. If patient zero of the “woke mind virus” is too many women indulging one other on campus, and if this tendency to “feminization” can also be diagnosed as the cause of the current mental health crisis in at least one part of the youth population, that’s a very politically convenient explanation for a big problem. But here is the actual deadly serious truth: Although the epochal effects of insufficient masculine energy on campus won’t be known for years, it’s actually the relegation of the pursuit of mental health to a supposedly feminized practice that is discouraging more men from seeking care and actually, concretely killing them dead. Perhaps the world of conservative pundits should spend less time worrying about too many ladies on campus and more time having a good cry on a therapist’s couch.