You matter: Mental health and stress culture

| Contributing Writer

It’s 2:47 a.m. on any given weeknight, and I’m sighing with satisfaction as I finally press “submit” on one of many assignments. I send my brother, a senior at Washington University, a thumbs-up photo and ask if he’s almost done. “Nope! Probably pulling another all-nighter lol,” he captions a snapshot of his Monster, Bang or Redbull. My third cup of coffee sits empty on the nightstand next to me. I battle with whether or not I should start that other assignment or if I should work on an internship application; I think that I should really finish that reading, but finally I settle on sleep — knowing, however, that by choosing sleep now I’ll probably be in the same position tomorrow.

Back-to-back all-nighters, surviving on caffeine and determination, doing whatever one can to stay awake and “just get it done” are all regarded by many WashU students as just another unavoidable aspect of college life. But in an academic culture that claims to be aware of and committed to prioritizing mental health, it’s necessary to investigate why said prioritization of mental health is still failing to take place within student cultures and in student-teacher dynamics. 

For the most part, students are familiar with the importance of taking mental health seriously, but how often it’s actually practiced by individual students is less common. Given the rigorous nature of WashU and the requirements students met in order to gain admittance into the University, it’s fair to say that most aren’t strangers to intensive hard work and being dedicated to their studies. However, because of the normalization of “grind culture” as a means of taking pride in doing whatever it takes to be academically successful –– even when it means sacrificing personal health –– the decision to take time to prioritize mental well-being is one that often inspires feelings of guilt due to “unproductivity.” It isn’t an uncommon experience for students to decide to finally take the rest that they need but then to spend said time thinking about all the work they could be doing instead. 

Creating a teacher-student culture that encourages students to take charge of their needs could make all the difference. Although there are several professors who are extremely accommodating and willing to offer leeway and extensions by need, many others are notorious for the opposite. Such can be extremely stressful and ultimately counterproductive. I’m not saying that every deadline should be open-ended, but zero tolerance policies on late work and absences isn’t likely to produce higher student achievement. Rather, ignoring these requests with no exceptions just means that in addition to extra stress, students are more likely to submit subpar work, prioritizing getting it in on time over quality, which would have been the result of a little more leniency. 

Some possible ways to accommodate these issues could be allowing a predetermined number of extensions and not assigning multiple large assignments per class over a singular weekend. Wellness days could also be reinstated long term, with the two typically allotted absences accompanied by an additional mandatory two wellness days to be used throughout the semester as students see fit. This could also denormalize toxic ideas within student cultures about what a productive day can look like, doing away with the idea that sacrificing one’s health to complete projects, assignments, etc. without rest or a break equates to being a better student. By allowing ourselves and each other to actually prioritize our mental wellbeing, we’d make room for greater achievements in our personal lives and academic successes.

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