Mental Health and Academic Pressures: What Needs to Change?

And what can we do to incite this change?

CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.

What is mental health?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health is a basic human right and a mental state of well-being which allows us to cope with the stresses of everyday life, helps us establish our decision-making skills and strengthens our abilities to build relationships. But mental health differs from person to person. Our surroundings in particular can impact our mental health. Working in an intense, fast-paced environment puts a lot of pressure on a person's mind resulting in burnout, or more severe mental health issues like anxiety and depression. And the pressures of academia, especially, can negatively impact a person's mental health.


Academia is an integral part of a person's life. For most, from the age of 5 to 18, we spend nearly every day of those years in school or an educational environment. We're held to high standards that can be extremely overwhelming and difficult to maintain, putting ongoing pressure on our mental well-being. Anxiety has been labelled an "epidemic" amongst young people in schools due to difficulty maintaining these high standards. While a third of university students in 2021 showed signs of depression, according to the Office of National Statistics.


As a result of declining mental health, our quality of work suffers too. A student won't be getting the most out of their education when their mental well-being is being neglected. 96% of teenagers in England believe their mental health has affected their schoolwork at some point during their education. So, the next step to combat these statistics is to recognise the intrinsic flaws within the education system to locate where change is needed and figure out ways to incite these changes.


Perfectionism

The idea of perfection is completely unattainable. But to many students, the notion is something they constantly strive for in their journey to academic success which severely impacts their mental health. During my secondary school years, I was one of these students. And there are two types of perfectionism I want to direct you to:

  • The first is "self-orientated perfectionism". And it's exactly how it sounds— your perfectionist tendencies are internally motivated by the unrealistic standards you set for yourself.

  • The contrasting type of perfectionism is socially-prescribed perfectionism. This is when a person's perfectionist tendencies are motivated by external factors, by societal standards and the people around them, like their parents, teachers and peers, for example.

A highly-intensive academic environment is an ideal place for both types of perfectionism to flourish. This creates a toxic mindset for a student to be steeped in. From personal experience, during school, my self-worth was dependent on my academic success. I have always been a self-orientated perfectionist, pushing myself way too hard to the point my parents would have to intervene, telling me I needed to take breaks or finally get some sleep. I was hard-wired to strive for perfection and as a result, my mental health plummeted during my last two years of secondary school. Anxiety spiralled into depression, and along with the quality of school work I produced declining and my attendance getting worse, my personal life and physical health suffered immensely too. All due to academic pressures stifling my mental well-being.


Schools need to discourage the idea of "perfection". It isn't just high standards a student is trying to maintain, it's standards that are impossible to reach— this is exhausting. No person will ever have peace of mind if they continuously strive for perfection. Teachers should be aware of the language they use. Instead of using discourse surrounding the notion of "perfection", teachers should try what's known as Student Feedback Loop, promoting academic improvement and reflection while maintaining a healthy relationship with their students.


What else needs to change?

Within academia, some systematic beliefs and values are heavily encouraged by teachers, school boards and even students' parents which I think puts a lot of pressure on a person's mental health. A few simple changes can be made by schools to just ease the pressures placed upon students.


100% Attendance:

  • 100% attendance is an overvalued belief within the education system. Students with full attendance are usually highly rewarded and elevated above their peers by teachers, and granted certificates and prizes. Such a public elevation demonstrates how highly valued this quality is. But simultaneously indicates to students with lower attendance that they're not as valued nor are they working hard enough. This creates a very toxic mindset for the student and their relationship with academia may decline.

  • Instead, schools should neither encourage nor discourage 100% attendance. Avoiding such heavy emphasis, either way, will allow students to go at their own pace and attend school when they can, rather than forcing themselves to go when they're mentally unable to cope. Doing so will likely alleviate a lot of pressure.

Too much homework:

  • Homework is typically given to students to further boost their learning. It does have its benefits— teaches discipline, creates a working routine, and reinforces what has been learnt in the classroom. However, piling on the homework for the sake of it is overwhelming and exhausting since too much homework contributes to student stress. I think teachers need to find the right balance to achieve the most beneficial result and take the time to research whether the type of homework they're handing out is practical or not.

Planning:

  • Implementing a system (however formal or informal that particular institution wants it to be) where the teachers sit down with their students to help them plan their academic schedule; set boundaries and allow students to be aware of their limits to avoid burnout and exhaustion from an overflowing workload. This encourages them not to push themselves beyond their own limitations. Even corresponding with other teachers to make sure, as a collective, they're not all overworking their students is s step in the right direction.

Acknowledging the flaws within the system allows us to implement the change needed to combat mental health issues among young people. Now, we can take the next steps to achieve better working environments for students.

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