At Wellesley, we all know people who work themselves to dangerous extremes. Only a few weeks into the semester, we’ve become consumed by “midterm season,” an endless, stressful cycle of exams, papers, internship applications and organization obligations. Because of this academic culture, we may consciously or unconsciously fall into the habit of determining our self-worth according to our grades or other measurements of academic success.
As a result, when students start to prioritize midterms ahead of their own health, students too often suffer the physical and mental consequences. The academic environment at Wellesley encourages students to focus on their classes, but students should not have to sacrifice their mental or physical health for “success.” Nor should we allow extreme levels of stress to be the norm. On an institutional level, the College must continue to ensure the accessibility, confidentiality and cultural relevance of mental health support.
We must work as a community to build an environment that does not promote overexertion. We have all walked past the Pendleton Atrium or the Leaky Beaker and overheard Wellesley students competing to see who has slept the least or studied more for their midterms. Relaxation seems not to lead to relief but to a sense of anxiety that we’re not doing enough. Wellesley’s strong work ethic has its advantages but should not cause students to overwork themselves to unhealthy levels. The culture here encourages a competitive spirit, but students should take time to check in with friends, relax and make sure that they are, at the least, eating and sleeping.
The Balanced Health Educators, the Outing Club and the Wellesley S.M.I.L.E.S. (Spontaneous Moments in the Lives of Everyday Students) have started an eight-week challenge called “The Happiness Project” at Wellesley along with MIT, Harvard, Yale and UCLA. The Project seeks to override the pervasive culture of stress with weekly challenges of different healthy and happy habits. Such efforts are a first step to building a healthier community at Wellesley.
But besides these measures, we recognize that many students have deeper mental health concerns, including some that stem from and extend beyond academics. At Wellesley, students can seek help from their peers, residential life directors, faculty and the Stone Center. Although the Stone Center helps many students, there is room for improvement. The Stone Center needs to become more relevant to the culture at Wellesley and students’ backgrounds. Fellow students and staff should be open to facilitating discourse in a safe space about what it means to be healthy and successful in a collegiate setting.
Newsweek magazine recently published a profile on mental health support at several well-known universities. The article also documented the stories of many students across the country who sought help for anxiety, depression and other issues and were subsequently punished by the administration. Several students were forced to withdraw from their respective colleges. By putting reputation at the forefront of their priorities, these institutions discourage students from seeking help for mental health issues that warrant professional attention and instead encourage students to put mental health on the back burner. Instead of discouraging students from seeking counseling, colleges should encourage students to prioritize their health and well being.
Even though “midterm season” will persist throughout the semester, we should make time for rest and leisure, and encourage such activities on an institutional level.