How does university factor into isolation and mental health?
Mental health issues problem of university system
Colin Andrew MacDougall
It’s always the same story. You’ll study later, you’ll draft your outline tomorrow, and you’ll do your readings in the morning. Before you know it, your deadline is in the morning, and the only thing on your mind is: I did this to myself.
But as someone who has spent his entire life combatting severe anxiety issues, I can personally testify that this self-defeating conclusion doesn’t give the full story. The current academic system subjects students to massive episodes of anxiety and depression. Courses are structured for maximum efficiency—or in other words, cramming. With a finite amount of time and a seemingly infinite amount of material to cover, professors are compelled to cram our midterms, papers, and exams in quick succession. These weeks of hell are always a single, anxious thought away.
Procrastination forces us into seclusion, desperately force-feeding our brains with as much food-for-thought as possible. In this self-induced solitary confinement, underlying conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety can become exacerbated.
We have been deceived into entering a system where the natural by-product is mental distress. No one told us our diplomas came with a slew of mental illnesses—that was something we had to find out along the way. We have been forced into an arena in which to succeed we must combat our demons, and our teachers stand on the sidelines, too complacent to change the system.
The result is reoccurring cycles of failure, suffering, and in extreme cases, death. These are the consequences of the contract we have entered into with our scholastic Leviathan.
Mental health based on a combination of factors
The pressure to achieve high marks is often cited as a cause of mental health problems among university students. People who put high expectations on themselves or are under pressure from their families may experience stress and burnout. But I think it is rare that one thing can single-handedly lead to a mental breakdown in a healthy person with no underlying mental illness.
While a lack of balance between academics and social lives is neither healthy nor sustainable, the degree to which academic stress can cause isolation depends on a student’s personality. Those who enter university expecting their grades to be the same as they were in high school will likely have a difficult time adjusting to lower marks, or with the workload it takes to maintain such high standards.
But academic stressors are just one factor among many that can cause mental health problems. A student may be away from home for the first time, eating unhealthily, partying too much, and not getting enough sleep. They are away from their support network and may have trouble making new friends.
Students may have financial stressors—racking up debt from education and residence costs, or under pressure to excel to maintain scholarships. They may have unacknowledged mental health problems. A combination of these stressors, especially when combined with latent mental health issues, can undeniably lead to a breakdown, but it is not one specific cause that can be invariably blamed.
University is a stressful time and students should be on the lookout for early warning signs of burnout, anxiety, and depression in themselves and their friends. But in discussions of mental illness, it is important not to oversimplify the issue by only considering one possible cause.
You can’t let isolation overwhelm you
Last year, an old friend of mine committed suicide. The irrevocable nature of the act stuck with me, and I found myself wondering: how could things ever get that out of control? How could anyone ever feel so alone?
During midterms this semester, a friend made a comment about killing herself because of her endless to-do list. The nonchalant way she discussed suicide really bothered me. University can be difficult, but surely it can’t be that awful.
It is for some. Students feel an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, and the struggles are very isolating. Some find ways to blow it off simply by celebrating after their last exam, but others don’t.
Nobody is an ideal picture of mental health. After moving into residence I have seen many of my new and old friends break down under the demands of balancing school and fitting in. It sometimes feels impossible to achieve an acceptable GPA when there are so many other things on your plate, especially with how alone school can make you feel.
I am lucky enough to have found a loving family at the University of Ottawa, and each day they keep a smile on my face. But I know everyone isn’t as lucky.
In the moments I feel most defeated, I remind myself that my friend never even graduated high school and never had the opportunity to enrol in university.
University is an opportunity. Seven thousand people graduate from the U of O each year. We should look forward to being one of them, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for helping hands along the way. I promise you aren’t the only one managing midterms, relationships, and part-time jobs. It’s a challenge, but having someone to talk to can help more than you think.
University should be time to develop social abilities
Some may argue that isolation from social life can be beneficial for academic success. However, failure to develop social abilities can be damaging to a student’s growth and success.
With an increasing number of professions requiring social ability, the importance of a student’s social life becomes obvious. Almost any work environment involves other people, and you must have basic skills such as patience, empathy, and manners to succeed.
So many of us have our sights set on educational success that we forget about the social aspects of life. As a result, we are deprived of these essential skills that cannot be learned from a book.
Having a social life not only helps a person gain fundamental career skills, but it allows students to expand their own knowledge through others. The University of Ottawa offers a truly diverse group of students with different cultures, passions, and fields of study. By leaving the bubble of isolated textbook education, you have the potential to learn from your own friends. It could be about something as simple as a great movie, but it could also be about something as important as astrophysics.
Our current education system simply fails to recognize the importance of social activity. Being social not only gives us the potential to broaden our knowledge, but also to develop irreplaceable career skills.
Schoolwork isn’t directly related to mental health
Even though university requires students to isolate themselves and cram during high- stress periods, I don’t think it’s school work alone that leads to poor mental health.
During midterms or exams, it’s typical for me to spend 10 hours straight in my room, hunched over papers, running off five cups of coffee, and staring at a glowing screen. But, there are also many weekends when school work is the last thing on my mind, and I can head out of town with a group of friends to blow off some steam.
Stress can occur during new experiences and social situations when students become acutely aware of their own discomfort. Feeling alone is more prevalent among first-year students because they have left behind the comfort of their home to attend a new school with new people in a new city. Even before classes start, insecurities can begin to develop and students can feel out of place, self-conscious, and unwanted.
The reasons behind poor emotional or mental health may not always be clear-cut. If you are or know someone who suffers from depression or anxiety, you’ll know that it can be out of one’s control, caused by environmental factors or a chemical imbalance. That’s why I don’t think we can blame school work and the subsequent exams and essays for causing mental health issues. It could be a contributing factor, but it’s not the sole reason.