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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Recognize and reach out to overwhelmed peers

Published: March 28, 2014
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Every day brings new obstacles, some days more than others. At Brandeis, we expect our course load to be difficult, and there is a mentality to fill every waking hour with a different activity. Students are no strangers to complaining about all the stress or work they have to deal with. But perhaps we should take these complaints more seriously. No one should feel miserable here. College is hard, but we shouldn’t be so eager to burn ourselves out.
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an article by an “anonymous academic” about a culture of accepting poor mental health in academic situations. Though the article specifically pertained to graduate-level programs, many undergraduates at Brandeis face the same problems. Late nights of homework, three tests on one day, difficult family situations and problems with friends all compound the already stressful nature of college. Why should we accept that students are unhappy, anxious and unwell? Why shouldn’t every student feel healthy in a university environment, regardless of their major or the difficulty of their program?
Almost every single week, there is another voluntary psych transport listed in the Brandeis police log, as another student is taken to the hospital due to psychiatric concerns. The school is doing the right thing in taking care of its students, but why do we accept this without question? Students are under enormous amounts of stress at times, but we tend to tell our friends, “I have so much work to do. I’m so stressed,” as if it’s some sort of accomplishment. Other students seem to make it a competition, feeling as if they have to be stressed too, or else they aren’t doing enough, or they’re missing out. Our goal should not be to have the most hectic schedule. Instead, let’s make sure we and our friends are not overwhelmed.
The mental health of our student body should not be dismissed. Students deserve to feel comfortable, well and happy. If something in the environment of the school is causing that to falter, we should take steps to understand and fix the problem. Professors, especially those in the sciences, should make an effort to know when concurrent classes have exams and take those dates into account when making their schedule. There is no reason why students need more stress piled on them.
When students are doing poorly in a class, professors and TAs should be expected to at least make an attempt to speak with the student. Perhaps there are outside factors that are making the class more difficult. Perhaps they are taking six classes and are heavily involved in three clubs, and literally do not have enough hours in the day to complete everything. Genuine concern from a professor might be what a student needs to feel they can take a step back and take care of themselves.
The culture of a university is always telling students to do more, be involved, work harder, work faster and meet more deadlines. One can claim that this is meant to prepare us for the “real world,” but how are we supposed to be prepared if we can’t make it to graduation? There is no need for students to work to the point of sickness. One imperfect test, class or even thesis is not the end of the world. We have to recognize that there are so many opportunities available to us, just as students who attend a university. You will get through it—but you have to make time for your own mental health, too. Your friends and teachers should understand when things get to be too much.
It is unacceptable that a community would perpetuate the idea that working yourself to the point of illness is an appropriate goal. The class of 2014 has lost two students who took their own lives. I can’t pretend to know why this happened, but clearly something needs to change. Academic stress is only one of many difficulties that students encounter. We have to take better care of those in our community who are struggling, rather than telling them that the struggle is what they should strive to achieve. It only takes the simple question, “Are you okay?” asked in a way that expects a genuine answer, not the generic reply of “I’m fine.”
Students, professors, staff and administrators need to be more in tune with the feelings of those they work with. This means making students feel more comfortable talking about mental health issues. This can start as early as first-year orientation—including a presentation on how to care for your own mental health, as well as where to go for help if your friend has an emergency, can give all students the information they need. In classes, in clubs and in sports teams, there should be a discussion of mental health issues and the available resources on and off campus for a listening ear and treatment options. A university should not pretend mental health isn’t important. But it’s up to individuals to make a small difference every day, checking in on their friends and students, to change a culture of working harder to one of working smarter.