There is a mental health crisis in this country and at this University. Everyone knows this by now. There are year-long waiting times for unhelpful counselling services, and no help from your GP other than the offer of a prescription — which can be helpful, of course, but often needs to be combined with therapy. Even though we’re aware of the crisis, we still don’t really explore the causes.
A hugely significant factor, especially at university, is stress. It’s bad for sleep and memory, and exacerbates any mental health problems we may already be struggling with. Many people turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. The few temporary solutions offered for the stress almost all of us experience near the end of term — Paws Against Stress, yoga, etc. — are all organised by students. Even though our problems are due to the pressures being put on us by University in the first place, it falls to our peers to help.
At the start of the year, one of my lecturers put up a slide detailing how many hours of work we would be expected to do for that subject. The suggestion was that for this course (which was ten credits) we should be working (including classes) for five and a half hours per week, and more when we had an assessment due. For a sixty credit course load that would mean working at least thirty-three hours a week, which is almost as much as a full-time job. I don’t want to imply that university is harder than working full-time, but at least in most jobs the hours are consistent, and you can leave at the end of the day and completely stop thinking about it. And get paid.
At university, even when we study hard and do every set piece of work, we can still feel like we’re falling behind. Work-life balance is nearly impossible to maintain when our work infiltrates our home and makes us feel guilty for enjoying ourselves. There’s a culture of pulling all-nighters, of constantly studying. If we’re not working — when we’re socialising, relaxing, whatever — we feel that we’re losing precious time that could (and should) be dedicated to getting the best possible grade. This comes to a head at the end of term, when deadlines and exams are looming. At this point, most people are putting far more time into university than one would into a full-time job. People will spend all day in the library, coming home only to shower and sleep. This isn’t necessarily explicitly praised, but the perception of people who work that hard is that they are virtuous for doing so, and that we should do the same. We should be able to work for an amount of time that doesn’t feel completely overwhelming and still achieve good grades — the University should not require its students to compromise their physical and mental health in order to succeed.
Of course we’re here to learn, and learning things properly takes time and concerted effort, but stress and anxiety aren’t conducive to good learning. It’s much harder to concentrate on a reading or an assignment when part of your brain is running through all the other things you still have to do. Being pushed is good for us, but there is nothing useful about being pushed to simply put more hours of work in — we need to be asked interesting questions, to have time to properly think something through rather than just learning and then reproducing the information required to get a good grade. We’re made miserable by our studies, something that should be an enjoyable exploration of subjects we care about. When we become overwhelmed it can mean that we despair, spiral, and even drop out — surely the University should be trying to avoid this. We’re told before we come to university that no one will hold our hands through it — that we will be expected to work independently, to read around our subject. Perhaps if we were allowed space to breathe we would be able to do this.
There isn’t necessarily an easy answer here — stress can’t be completely eliminated from the university experience, of course, and it certainly wouldn’t be ideal if everyone had to get counselling (even if that was a viable option). And as adorable as our canine friends are, they should certainly not be our entire solution. But maybe, rather than allowing things to reach a crisis point, the University could consider minimising the amount of pressure it puts on its students. If a full course load means that students need to work so much they have almost no free time, perhaps the content of those courses should be reexamined. Less stressful methods of assessment could be explored — more frequent testing, perhaps, or even a move towards examining for understanding rather than knowledge. Whatever the way forward is, something certainly needs to change.