At last night’s AAS Senate meeting, the mental health task force came to discuss the state of Amherst students’ mental health and well-being. Remarkably, no one was surprised to hear that much of the student body had significant stress-related issues. The students attending the meeting are our peers, so they understand the stress students face on campus. Most of us, as high achieving students, don’t bat an eyelid as we continue to add more and more to the ever-growing to-do lists we accumulate through classes, sports, and other activities. Surely, none of us doubt that all could contribute to a harried, preoccupied and unhappy student body.
But students shouldn’t accept stress as an inevitable byproduct of studying at a top college. Many factors of such stress stem specifically from features of Amherst College life. Feelings of social isolation come from a social environment limited in scope, limited by cliquish segregation. Students also frequently connect back to good friends they left back home, usually states or worlds away. And the world students come to between breaks may feel limited to a quad and a dining hall and the distant horizon of College street.
Students also face constant academic and social comparison with their peers. These factors, in addition to the internalized expectations students face from parents, manifest themselves themselves as stress, affecting different people differently. Stressed students — unaware that others are stressed around them — will reinforce the isolation they already feel.
Students need to look for the many ways in which they can reduce the stress in their life, a large part of which just comes from discovering that they are not alone. We need to look around and realize we’re all going through the same troubles and insecurities, and help each other through these issues. Much stress arises from our perception of work as a challenge instead of as activity — while students can always squeeze a drop enjoyment from any activity they do, students should choose activities that they naturally find enjoyable. Working toward a more perfect resume never made anyone jump out of bed in the morning, or afternoon… whenever we get out of bed. The lessened perfectionism, title-seeking and competitiveness that comes with it may bring about more cooperation, creativity and quality of student life and learning.
Students can also ask the College to improve student stress levels in the limited ways that they can. Some suggestions include the restructuring of the calendar for more breaks spaced through the semester, and increased engagement with students about mental health issues and counseling access in a way similar to the way they approach sexual health. Professors can also contribute by distributing work evenly through the semester, keeping breaks homework free and expressing sensitivity to students during stressful academic periods or personal trials.
This is important not only for us and the administration to create a healthy student body that is productive and satisfied, but it is important as it factors significantly into the College’s rankings and reputation as a friendly, supportive environment that fosters growth and learning, as opposed to toxic competition, stress and pressure that ever so often plagues other top schools.