In recent years, mental unwellness rates among college students across the country have dramatically increased. Some in higher education believe that these issues stem from an increased number of distractions and students’ mismanagement of their time, but it is the increasing pressures of the ‘total work day,’ inculcated by modern education, that are at the heart of this epidemic.
According to a 2014 study by the American College Health Association, 86 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by “all they have to do.” Further, a report from the Center for Collegiate Health published this month shows that the percentage of college students seeking counseling services has risen in the past five years at a rate far greater than that of matriculation growth. These numbers also underrepresent the population of students who face mental health issues as a whole, since many students go without treatment during their four years. This is especially true for minority students, and the issues and stigmas they face with mental health at university.
One way the University is working to address this rising epidemic of mental unwellness is through the Office of Health Promotion’s Got Time? campaign. The materials prepared for the campaign tell students how to better manage their time by organizing their work space and planning ahead.
The University is right to begin addressing the clear concern. This issue, however, is not caused by students’ inability to manage their time, but rather the competitive drive for greater achievement in modern education. College does bring with it new challenges and more rigorous material than high school education, but these changes have always been a part of matriculating. Additionally, high school students across the country show great time-management skills. Young students demonstrate a superb ability to juggle multiple advanced classes with sports, work, and other activities—not to say, necessarily, that this behavior is healthy. This is true especially of students enrolling at elite universities which demand multiple high achievements for admission.
Rather than fault students for their temporal mismanagement, the Got Time? campaign should consider how modern education reinforces and ingrains a lifestyle that leads to increasing mental unwellness: the ‘total work day.’ The ‘total work day’ describes the condition in which one plans meticulously every part of the day and centers activity around optimizing ‘real work,’ the socially productive tasks that one does for a salary or benefit, in order to maximize achievement. Because of this, students’ schedules provoke feelings of constant busyness and competition. The pressure caused by this need for higher achievement reflects itself in two ways among students. First, it demands increased ‘real work’ productivity. This is seen in the ever-increasing pressure on students to be higher achievers in classes and professional experiences. These pressures are considered beneficial because they encourage results, but their tendency to lead to over-extension, competition, and self-deprecation is problematic.
The second manifestation is the demand for increased productivity in ‘nonwork’ time. As students try to juggle their ‘real work’ schedules, they begin to feel guilty about the neglect they give to personal and social needs because of the way this neglect adversely affects ‘real work.’ This begins a vicious cycle when any deviation from the ‘total work day’ schedule leads to increased anxiety, as it affects students’ opportunities for ‘real work.’
These pressures are greatly impairing student’s abilities for critical thinking, depth, and connection. The ‘total work day’ leaves no room for reflecting on the world outside of work and connecting work to a greater understanding. Instead, students are left with repetitive schedules that leave little room for detours into new and potentially greater possibilities. Some in higher education, including Director of Admissions John Mahoney, rightfully recognize the detriments of this ceaseless drive for achievement in education and have recommended ways to cut short the competitive drive in education and promote passion and humane connection. It’s always challenging to address the culture of a problem, but until greater institutional emphasis in modern education is placed on depth and critical thinking rather than optimizing achievements, students will increasingly experience high rates of mental health issues as a result of the ‘total work day.’
Featured Image by Margaux Eckert