By Harriet King
‘Tis the season of joy and happiness, but students at the University of Mary Washington are feeling otherwise. The holidays are typically one of the most enjoyable times of the year, especially with winter break approaching. However, before students are able to rest, there is one thing looming on the horizon that makes winter break seem much farther away than it is: finals week.
“I’m excited that classes are coming to an end, but I am worried about passing two of them,” junior biomedical sciences major Samantha Harms said. ”I’m very stressed about exams coming up and just really need to focus on studying a lot, and put more time into my homework.”
Finals week is stressful in and of itself, but once the added pressures of life outside of academics are tacked on, the stresses of being a student and maintaining a balanced life can be overwhelming.
“The lives of college students and young adults are more stressful than ever,” said Dr. Tevya Zukor, the director and a practicing clinician at the Talley Center, in an email to The Weekly Ringer. “Many students regularly engage in (more than) a full caseload, are members of multiple clubs and activities, and may have additional family and work obligations on top of everything else.”
Zukor continued, “It has been a long time since college students were ‘only’ expected to focus on their academic progress while attending school. This is a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.”
On campus, students have a variety of commitments in addition to their academic responsibilities.
Such commitments come in many forms. For example, student-athletes commit over 20 hours of time per week according to Stack. Furthermore, many students work either on or off campus, and many others are part of the 150+ student-led clubs on campus listed on UMW’s website. These activities, which are common to many college students, don’t even factor in additional stressors, such as being a caregiver for one’s family or applying to graduate school.
Senior nursing major Mary Brunie discussed the challenges of juggling academics, work and extracurriculars.
“Between commuting and school, work, and sports it can sometimes be mentally overwhelming. I find it hard to have the brain power to do my work sometimes coming off of a 12 hour shift and just having to push through,” said Brunie who also commented on the cold weather playing a role in this feeling.
Junior elementary education major Conner Rodgers shared similar feelings, citing the weather change as a contributing factor to his fatigue.
“I think the fall semester is always more hard on me because of the weather changing and the time changing,” said Rodgers, “I do feel burnt out by the end of each week, and feel as though I never get enough sleep.”
In light of these pressures, the concept of burnout is all too familiar.
When asked about academic burnout among his students, Associate Professor of Chemistry Randall Reif discussed how society is changing. He spoke on both the willingness to discuss topics such as mental health and academic burnout, as well as the changes in the pressure being put on our generation.
“I get very passionate to hear about the word burnout, because people weren’t talking about burnout years ago … It wasn’t something I heard, either as a student or at a job,” said Reif. “For me, burnout has always been there. We just now have a word and a willingness to talk about it.”
“I would make the argument that there are pressures that are being put on this generation of students that did not exist,” Reif continued. “Society has fundamentally changed. And watching that change and being a professor for the last 10 years of it, I’m seeing that change even in my students and the pressures that are on them. I don’t know that they’re greater in the pressures that were there before, but they’re certainly different, and they’re certainly more diverse.”
These factors that comprise a college student’s life have a strong link to their mental health and well-being, and reports show an increase in student mental health concerns.
The results of a Healthy Minds Survey revealed that 44% of students sampled reported symptoms of depression and 37% reported significant symptoms of anxiety during the 2021-2022 academic year. The Survey also showed that the number of students who received professional counseling or therapy increased from 30% in 2018 to 37% in 2022.
When asked about the number of students seeking help from the Talley Center, Zukor said, “The number of students coming to the counseling center for all services continues to rise. In particular, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of students presenting with anxiety, and to a lesser extent, depression.”
Zukor explained that anxiety has risen to be the number one mental health concern, as it has superseded depression over the past 10 years. He also noted how anxiety and depression often intersect.
“It is actually more common than not for students to be experiencing some combination of both anxiety and depression,” said Zukor.
While there are mental health resources available to students, there are other steps the University should take to help students avoid reaching a breaking point.
It can be challenging to take time out of the day to stop and rest, and many students feel that if they take the time to step back and care for themselves, they won’t have enough time to get everything done each day. Often, I find myself choosing a quick dinner like Ramen over a more elaborate meal so that I can have more time to study, or I skip reading my book in the morning so that I can get just a few extra minutes of sleep.
These seem like small, insignificant changes in the moment, but according to Mental Health First Aid, having a consistent self-care routine helps to reduce stress and anxiety while increasing happiness levels. With a limited amount of time in the day to get everything done, it is easy to scratch off self-care tasks from the to-do list in order to get more “productive” things done instead.
One way that colleges could help address students feeling overwhelmed is through implementing wellness days. Some colleges, such as Northeastern University, have taken this step, allowing students to take up to two days per semester to care for their mental health, according to NPR. Additionally, other colleges, including Penn State and the University of Illinois, have begun implementing new policies to accommodate students’ mental health, including mental health days, according to the American Psychological Association. These wellness days allow students a way to take a step back and take care of themselves when things are overwhelming.
As the pressures put upon students continue to increase, UMW should follow the example of other universities that are currently implementing these procedures and allow students a few mental health days each semester where the student’s absence is excused and missed work can be made up.