Over-worked and over-stressed

Students may want to re-evaluate how they respond to academic pressure

The fall semester is in full swing and soon to follow will be the first wave of tests, essays, projects and other assignments. How students respond to such academic stress varies from person to person – many may just simply have a freakish capacity for focus, while others may be content to cruise through the semester, accomplishing the bare minimum to get by. For most students though, dealing with the demands of the university can be overwhelming. In dealing with such a heavy workload, students find a myriad of ways to cope or adjust their lifestyle – whether it’s gallons of coffee, sleepless nights, lack of social interactions, or even drug use, everyone has their “go-to” methodology in how they respond to academic pressure.

At this time though, students may not only want to ask what the best path to academic success is, but also whether their chosen path is sustainable, healthy or potentially corrosive to their health and mental well-being in general. According to a 2013 report by The Globe and Mail: “90 per cent of students said that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year… 50 per cent said they felt hopeless… 9.5 per cent of students saying they had seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year, while 1.3 per cent said they had attempted suicide.”

This same article noted that the stress facing students is multidimensional. The academic stress students face is compounded by many other issues such as romantic, social, financial and health related issues. It can be incredibly difficult for a student with some health-related issue to juggle a full course load, while working part time to afford tuition, and all the while also trying to retain some semblance of genuine social interaction. When someone is faced with an overwhelming amount of obligations on a multitude of different levels, there seems to be only two options: throw some activities to the wind (e.g. sports or clubs, etc.) or potentially risk one’s health.

Photo Courtesy of: Germanyinthirtyyears

Photo Courtesy of: Germanyinthirtyyears

In some respects, “living life to the fullest” has become a moral maxim, especially for university students – those who are inclined to get a post secondary education are generally interested in learning (hopefully) and this desire for knowledge often goes hand in hand with the desire for diverse experiences – and the university should cultivate this mindset. But, from this yearning for experiential diversity there has arisen a desire for experiential plentitude or some may say, excess. Many students have obligations that they cannot ignore such as serious health issues, or a family to provide for – that being said, there are also students who simply refuse to give up their various interests at the potential cost of their health.

Some of the best evidence for this new potentially self-destructive approach to the university experience is the skyrocketing usage amongst students of “study drugs”. These drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, are focus enhancing agents generally prescribed to individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and yet, many college students who don’t have a prescription consume it like its candy.

According to a 2014 article by CNN, “Full-time college students were twice as likely to have used Adderall non-medically as their counterparts”, and around 30% of university students in the US are believed to use stimulants non-medically. Such stimulants are powerful tools that allow students to keep up with their excessive social lifestyle and rigorous academic demands – such as the individual who needs to focus through the fog of a hangover in order to accomplish an assignment on time. Yet, such substance use (besides being illegal) comes at a cost, such as the potential for addiction, irritability, mood swings and amphetamine psychosis.

This consumerist paradigm of living a “full life” is not only self-destructive but somewhat paradoxical. Though a student may have stellar grades, be an active member of every club, and attend every party thrown on or off campus – is he really experiencing life to the fullest when he’s in a perpetual drunken stupor or on the verge of a psychological breakdown from lack of sleep or always in a Adderall-induced mechanized state of mind? This hypothetical student sees everything through a means-to-ends lense in which there seems to be no goal in sight that isn’t immediately transfigured into another means to another nebulous end. This shift to a quantitative conception of living life rather than a qualitative one, in which the various facets of life are balanced (admittedly not an easy task either), is more than just a problem for students.

The Japanese have coined a word, “Karoshi” which means “death from overwork”. There have been so many cases of otherwise completely healthy and young individuals dying from over-stress that business, labour and governmental agencies in Japan have been striving to develop ways to mitigate Karoshi. Now, while such a phenomenon has not become as prevalent in more western cultures, we can see the trappings of Karoshi taking form in the university system – through the increase in students seeking clinical help, dying from drug overdoses, having early life heart-attacks or possibly committing suicide (karōjisatsu – “suicide due to mental stress”). These victims of Karoshi tend to work excessive hours while maintaining an active social life (including drinking) and getting little to no sleep. Such a lifestyle is somewhat comparable to the life of many of today’s university students. It’s possible that the western world may have their first Karoshi crisis on their hands if this new model of the university student grows more prevalent. Such a future is not set in stone – for society or the individual student. It’s easy to get so caught up in the rat-race of academia that self-reflection is thrown to the wayside but if students take the time to reflect on the concept of the “good life” that so pre-occupied the Greeks, they would likely find some element of truth in Aristotle’s idea that virtue is found in the middle of two extremes.

Robert Smith
Assistant External News Editor

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