Mental Health and Our Education System

Me, unknowingly about to enter 10 weeks of pure stress.

Hi all! I realized I disappeared off the radar for awhile, and I wanted to take this as an opportunity to talk about something really important to me: mental health. Some of you who know me or my work well know that this comes up a lot in my music, but I feel it’s a subject that deserves to be spoken about both implicitly through expression and explicitly, through diatribe. So I hope you like diatribes!

So why did I disappear for the last month or so? Simply put, it was school. I was taking a particularly heavy quarter along with maintaining my professional life, and I became overwhelmed. Is this to be expected? Of course! Did I get through well? I believe so. But, this brings up my opinion:

Our school system is inefficiently rigorous. This leads to education processes which are counterintuitive for setting up a culture of good habits for mental health and effective work ethic.

This applies to primary, secondary, and tertiary school. But I’ll mainly talk about tertiary school (i.e. universities). I’ve experienced two schools: Carnegie Mellon, which uses the semester system, and University of Denver, which uses the quarter system. For those who haven’t heard of the quarter system, here’s how it compares to the semester system:

  1. Both add up to a 30 week academic year plus finals.
  2. Semesters divide this year into 2 15-week terms. Quarters divide it into 3 10-week terms.
  3. DU’s quarters are especially unique, because it results in a 6-week winter break (from Thanksgiving through New Year’s). Semesters usually have 4-week winter breaks from mid-December to mid-January.
  4. Quarter system summer breaks start in mid-June where semester summer breaks start in mid-May.

My issues with tertiary education apply to both systems, but I believe the quarter system augments them. Because, by pushing a class into a 10-week period, maybe some content will be dropped to lighten the load. But the pacing remains constant enough that everyone is very aware of which week of the term they are in (“This is SUCH a Week 7, amiright?”). And this results in students entering the “get-by” frame of mind. Meaning, if a student stumbles in a class, or has a personal emergency, they might be able to catch up, but if they’re already operating at their threshold, then this will push them past it. Then something has to fall off the priority list. And usually mental health is the first to go.

(Students in the semester system experience the same thing, but there’s sometimes a week about 2/3 of the way through where the stars align and that student can do what they need to recover).

So, why don’t students just take a lighter load so they’re not operating at their threshold?

This requires a two pronged answer:

1. Stress Culture

A lot of schools seek to enroll mostly ambitious, self-motivated students. Especially the schools trying to label themselves as “prestigious.” And these students are susceptible to what’s known as stress culture. In a nutshell, stress culture is: if you’re not stressed, you’re not doing enough. How does this become a thing? For one, the “self-motivated” students are picked primarily for their extracurricular engagement in high school. And they knew this as they were preparing for the college application process. The correlation is direct them: I did as many activities as I could in high school, that’s what got me here; therefore, I need to do as many things now so I’m successful when I graduate.

Secondly, the competition is closer in college than it is in high school. A lot of students find themselves experiencing the “no longer a big fish in a small pond” syndrome. Yet they still want to stand out. What differentiates the students from each other can be objectively measured (grades). But a lot is subjective (who cares about grades after you get your first job anyway?). So one of the objective measurements becomes workload. I work 40 hours a week on school, but he works 60 hours. He must be getting 20 hours more education than me. Written this way, the logic is intentionally shaky, but imagine being an 18 year old in a university with an uncertain future. Anxiety will find a way to get to you to this conclusion.

2. The system isn’t built to allow for the sort of flexibility required to allow students to moderate their workload.

No matter the degree a student is pursuing, there’s imposed on them a stark differentiation between “full-time” and “part-time” student. And being a full-time student comes with a number of perks (student loan deferment; university benefits including fitness centers, transportation passes, and insurance; eligibility for more scholarships and loans). So even though I pay by the credit for my master’s degree, I still need to maintain a 25-credit a year trajectory to maintain my benefits (did I mention student loan deferment? That’s a huge one).

And this issue compounds for undergrads. They usually take course loads that operate at a fixed tuition level. Meaning that, when they enter school, they’re planning on paying 4-year’s worth of tuition, no matter how many classes they take. But the requirements to graduate force a heavy workload, or else that 4-year’s worth of tuition becomes 5. And the rate doesn’t drop even though you’re taking fewer classes. The question is, then, should schools expect less of their students to allow for graduation? Would the school, and therefore the student’s degree, be considered less prestigious for it?

Admittedly, these experiences I’ve described are generalized. But each degree program has its variation. Based on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve been told from friends in other fields, these pressures are fairly constant across university campuses.

This leads me to the primary word I use to describe education in my opinion: “inefficient.”

A good friend of mine summarized it extremely well recently. To paraphrase, he said: “I don’t feel like I’m being challenged intellectually anymore. I feel like my existence as a human is being challenged.” He felt that way because he wasn’t learning a particularly large amount of information, but the amount of work being demanded of him was extreme. Is that good education? It’s mostly busy work.

I acquiesce this: part of the university system’s purpose is to teach students how to be effective intellectuals. And part of that is being able to spin many plates at once. But that doesn’t take 4 years of practice. Nor at least 2 extra years to become a “Master.” The point of the lengthy education time is to allow for more information to be communicated, not for more busy work to be completed. If we aren’t spending the time in school teaching effectively, then maybe we can try to teach more efficiently and minimize the busy work in response to allow the education to be shortened. Education would maintain its quality, but become cheaper if a student could get a degree in 3 years instead of 4. Either that or allow students the time to learn to be, and become, humans during their 4 years degree.

This finally leads me to make my point: all while a student is learning their skills, they’re learning to work in 10- or 15-week explosions of stress rather than learning moderation.

So even if you believe it’s valuable for students to experience being overwhelmed, is it worth it? Or are we just training a set of people with unhealthy work habits?

What am I doing about it?

For one, over the next few months, I’d just like to share with you my personal experiences as someone diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, and hopefully it will help some people (with or without mental illnesses).

Here’s what I’ve already started to do:

  1. Regularly see specialists who can help me (i.e. therapist and psychiatrist).
  2. Build the habits that can help me maintain my mental health when life is more challenging.

Going into detail on these is blog post in and of itself. One that should exist soon…

Here’s my next goal:

As I continue enforcing those goals, I am actively pursuing prioritizing my health. Easier said than done. But at least it’s said, and when I first said it, I had to admit to myself that I will not be good at it at first. Everything takes practice, and I have very little practice saying no to things that will impact my mental recovery time, and then using that time effectively. But I’m ready to make mistakes. And I invite you to try your hand at it as I do the same, and we can exchange notes!

These are just a few of my thoughts. I would love to hear your opinions in response. Especially if you disagree with it! Feel free to comment below or reach out to me on social media with any thoughts you have.

– Dewey