College stress culture and the glorification of “being busy”

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Photo by Marvin Meyer, courtesy of Unsplash

Most college students are no strangers to long hours at the library, lengthy study sessions before exams and general stress regarding academic and personal issues. Recently, mental health on college campuses has become an important issue, as research has found that three out of five students experience overwhelming anxiety, and two out of five students report difficulty functioning due to depression. The same study found that only a small percentage, about 10-15 percent, of students seek services at their university counseling center. 

Several mental health experts attributed this lack of self-help to the perpetuation of stress culture, defined as the glorification of being busy and the belief that reaching academic success necessitates stress. This is easily seen in the normalization of overlooking self-care and justifying unhealthy behaviors, such as caffeine dependencies and pulling all-nighters which have become synonymous with the college experience. Especially on college campuses, there is an attitude that stress is a signifier of hard work which will translate to academic success. 

Although there are clear benefits to hard work and pushing yourself, many people fail to recognize that stress culture negatively impacts students’ mental health and can lead to burnout and unhealthy behavior. Stress culture can negatively impact physical health as well through ignoring exercise and healthy eating. 

Substance abuse is linked to poor mental health, and stress can push students to use unhealthy methods to combat it. Stress culture pushes students to compare themselves to their peers in order to stay ahead and ultimately leads to negative self-image and insecurity issues. It is important to recognize that a school-life balance is necessary to enable students to enjoy other activities that help foster creativity, relaxation and other positive benefits. 

On William Jewell College’s campus, I have seen stress culture perpetuated through students who sacrifice their mental health in order to prioritize schoolwork. I know many students believe that some professors perpetuate stress culture by assigning a heavy course load without leniency. As a member of the Oxbridge Honors Program at Jewell, I have especially witnessed and felt the impacts of stress culture. There is a strong temptation to give in to comparison to my peer’s workload or study behavior since their work ethic is evident. 

COVID-19 has also made stress culture more evident. Since it is harder to have social outlets for stress, it is easy to internalize rather than combat it. Many students rely on extracurricular activities to relieve stress, but COVID-19 made these activities more difficult or changed the experience. In combination with COVID-19 stressors, college has become even more stressful because of academic and health concerns. 

Although there are avenues for Jewell students to get help for stress and mental health concerns, I think there could be a stronger push for making these resources known and further accessible to students. Initiatives such as Mental Health Month at Jewell are visible attempts to combat stress culture, but I am uncertain of their impact on the student body. The spring break days are also helpful in creating a mental health break for students. However, in the especially stressful times of COVID-19, additional resources that help students combat stress would be useful.

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