These days, I know that I’m not alone in dreading the newspaper headlines or alerts on my phone. With the horrific, criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine; the ever-increasing existential threat of climate change; the long-overdue racial reckoning, and the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and abroad, there is much to fear. Nonetheless, as a practicing clinical psychologist, I need to understand what my patients and I are experiencing and as a citizen, I feel the need to be well informed. But it takes a certain determination to approach the news.
For all those reasons, I was delighted to see a front-page article in The Boston Globe on April 26 about the Banana Lounge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Yes, that’s correct, it’s a banana lounge— a large room on the first floor of a campus building filled with boxes of bananas. Bananas are free and unlimited and the room is open 24 hours a day. In addition to snacking on a banana, students can relax, hang out, or even take a nap.
Certainly, there have been similar student support efforts, like mellow-out Mondays at John Hopkins where students can receive free massages. Bowls of candy are common in departmental offices. Back when I was an undergrad, we were provided with “exam food,” where I was first introduced to the fluffernutter.
College students and the mental health crisis
In my book Mood Prep 101 and my other writing, I have suggested that we need to create more relaxed environments on campuses. The mental health crisis in college students has been well documented. The COVID-19 pandemic added fire to an already fast-moving epidemic of psychiatric disorders and overall malaise.
According to the pre-pandemic Spring 2019 report by the American College Health Association, over 22 percent of students reported overwhelming anxiety during the previous year. Another study of over 300,000 students on 373 campuses reported by Sarah Lipson and her associates found that between the years 2013 and 2021, there was a 50% increase in mental health disorders. Although the largest increases in psychiatric disorders were among Native Americans, they as well as Black, Latinx, and Asian-American students have the lowest rates of treatment, thus perpetuating racial and ethnic disparities. Noteworthy also was that Arab-American students, also experiencing a growing prevalence of disorders, reported a 19% decrease in receiving treatment.
Even as COVID-19 may be waning, psychological disorders in college students are still increasing. This is sadly not a surprise because adolescents are vulnerable to the onset of psychiatric conditions and this generation has been isolated for over two years. Isolation deprived teens of socialization , the fuel they need to grow.
MIT’s Banana Lounge improves campus life
Of course, the most important response to the crisis should be the identification of psychological problems and increased access to treatment. But we should also improve life on campus and one way is to create innovative and unexpected ways for moments of joy. A student doesn’ t have to be suffering from a psychological disorder to have a need for relief, distraction, rest, or simply the desire to have some fun.
It’s worth examining the Banana Lounge from that perspective and noting its strengths. First, it was initiated as a pilot project by students when it opened in 2018, after several years of groundwork. (It has received more attention after a recent tweet by Professor Iain Cheeseman.) Tapping into the creativity and front-line knowledge of students makes any project more likely to succeed. The extremely positive response led to additional funding from a donor and the backing of the MIT student government association.
In addition, I’m impressed by the physical environment. Photos reveal that it is not a fancy room, but does have floor-to-ceiling windows for much-needed sunlight! As a Northeasterner, I know the need for any light we can get in the winter months. There are areas to display student art. All that and the yellow color is rather inviting.
Also, bananas are nutritious and full of potassium. Potassium is needed to keep muscles, nerves, and the heart working well and is also important for digestive health and bone strength. The usual pizza breaks, albeit sometimes delicious, are likely to lead to sluggishness from overloads of carbs and fats. Bananas are easy to eat and pick up on the go. Some of the students pop into the lounge banana when they have not been able to eat breakfast.
Finally, the students are reflecting their university’s values by crunching numbers and focusing on evaluation. The lounge is driven by data; students estimate that 315,000 bananas will be consumed in this academic year with a waste rate of only 0.2%.
All in all, it’s a delightful project. The lounge has become a place to receive not only nutritional but also psychological sustenance. So let’s take a moment to appreciate student initiative and creativity. Take a moment to appreciate unexpected pleasure. Take a moment to breathe deeply, eat a healthy snack, and be briefly diverted from our world’s tragedies. We can all use these moments.