Thoughts on Academics and Mental Health

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster

It’s the end of the semester, and the scent of stress is in the air. This time of year can turn an easy-going semester into a frenzy of group projects, term papers, exams, lab reports, presentations… you get the idea. I think that people commonly agree here that grades do not determine your worth as a person. In case you don’t believe this, let me say it for you right now: grades DO NOT determine your worth as a person. Neither does productivity. So why does the stress of this time of year seem to reach far beyond the simple fact that we just have a lot to do?

The current state of our education system is partially, but not entirely, responsible for a lot of the mysterious yet common factors that make stress bloom like the Rose Garden right before Family Weekend. Whether we like it or not (I’m going to assume “not”), grades play a role in graduate school admissions. While Scripps has no control over this, they do have some say about the academic climate of our community. Let’s consider Dean’s List. The Dean’s List is a recognition of having a certain minimum GPA for a full courseload (4 classes), and students on the Dean’s List receive a letter of congratulations. However, the list of students is also publicly posted. What is the purpose of this practice and the existence of Dean’s List at Scripps?

I don’t think that Scripps students need additional incentive to work hard in classes. We were accepted to Scripps for being high-achievers, and I don’t think that we need to be pulling out hair over the difference between a B+ and an A-. While it is true that I, hypothetically, believe this, I find it hard to internalize the concept which has been drilled into my head for roughly fifteen years. (In other words, I’m not saying that freeing yourself from the grades-frenzy is easy.) Dean’s List, while a nice award to put on a resume, creates anxiety and competition, in my experience. I saw this in my high school, also: we had red ribbons, which were roughly the same criteria as Dean’s List, in addition to junior and senior awards and honors awards that were publicly listed, mainly at graduation. Think of the case of a student who has the goal of getting two As (which might not be enough to get an award). Even if this student works excessively hard and meets her goal, it might be demoralizing to watch people who effortlessly make highest honors shrug off the public distinction, saying “it was easy.” (Disclaimer: not all straight-A students are like this!)

At this point, it is most important to remember that these awards and public recognition do not have to determine your self-esteem. Intelligence, work ethic, and whatever other academic qualities we value are not the kinds of things that a single grade (or many) can tell you. In the current state of the education system, school as an institution is incapable of accurately measuring all of these qualities we value. This is why small places like Scripps might have an advantage: the grading is often more holistic than a single final exam graded on a normal curve. Students here develop relationships with professors, who are able to get to know students and give individualized feedback. But, as potentially amazing as that is, there is also a potential for some less helpful interaction.

Specifically when it comes to mental health, not everyone is understanding. (Which is horrible, obviously.) There is an idea that there are acceptable and unacceptable excuses for missing class, not participating, missing deadlines, needing extra time, etc. and professors’ rules vary. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the way the system is set up can be devastating to mental health. For example, if someone is too anxious to go to class, yelling at this student for those absences when she actually does come to class is going to reinforce her anxiety — it will show her that when she comes to class, she feels terrible.

Obviously, the thought processes cannot be simplified this much, but on a raw emotional level, this is what happens. Another example is when a student has crushingly low self-esteem (which can be a symptom of depression and other mental illnesses) and is hyper-critical and perfectionistic about her work—if she doesn’t think her work is good enough, she won’t feel like she can hand it in, and then she will consequently get a bad grade or bad feedback. Again, this reinforces a cycle of negative emotions that can even spiral into burnout and other worsening conditions.

Returning to the idea of what’s excusable, mental health comes into play in a few ways. Some professors are eager to help in any way, others will be flexible as long as the student has Dean of Students official documentation and others are pretty unforgiving. Luckily, there are not many professors (maybe none at the 5Cs, I hope) who entirely discount mental health as a valid reason for missing class or work. That would be an extreme case, and in my experience most professors fall somewhere in between being fully accommodating and being totally unreasonable (or even grudgingly accommodating but only with documentation and a lot of pushing on a student’s part).

The problem with professors who discount claims of mental health issues affecting school work is that you do not have to have a mental illness to understand that it can be debilitating. A lot of people have trouble conceptualizing the impact of invisible illnesses, but this does not mean that they can tell someone struggling with them that they are “making it up” or that they “need proof.” Against this, people may argue that those not suffering from debilitating mental illness can say that they are in order to avoid responsibility. That’s a risk we should take considering one in four adults suffer from mental illness during a given year. Yes, there might be people who take advantage of this, but discounting all mental health because of those people is damaging to everyone else.

Mental health is real — even if professors or other people are giving you a hard time, remember your experiences are valid. Do not shy away from this fact even if people do not believe it. A note from the Dean of Students office does not make your illness more legitimate than it otherwise would be. You know your own reality.

Another point I want to make clear is that you should give yourself credit for trying — managing school on top of mental illness is challenging. Even if you have to do incompletes/withdrawals or drop a class, you are not a bad student. Even if you take a leave of absence. That is taking care of yourself and knowing what you need. No one should disrespect you for that — especially not yourself. When you begin taking care of yourself and not letting other people’s ignorance get to you, things will get easier. The first step in getting rid of society’s stigma is destroying the self-critical stigma that lives in our heads. The next step is to support one another.

There is always more to say on this topic of academics, and there is an endless amount to say about mental health. On that note, I will say that I am continuing as the Mental Health Columnist next year for my third and final year! Have a great summer, and I look forward to writing for you again next year.