November 3, 2009

Overthinking stress

SCRS events make the U of C’s culture of anxiety a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you had a problem with one of your classes, you would talk to your academic advisor. If you were struggling at sports, you would talk to your coach. But what do you do if you find yourself feeling sad, anxious, or stressed?

Then you’re probably just another student at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, the Student Counseling and Resource Service (SCRS), who last week invited all students to free mental health screenings at Bartlett and asked just these questions, thinks differently.

It’s easy to say that stress runs rampant at the University of Chicago. We exist in 10-week spurts of learning and study, five of which are dedicated to “midterms” that never end. Our esteemed Core Curriculum demands we excel in subject areas we don’t want to, don’t need to, and, for the most part, already know we can’t. And for six months of the year we have to deal with weather that makes it almost impossible to overcome the desire to never leave home.

Stress and anxiety are particular problems among our student body. Another widespread problem is talking about stress. At the risk of sounding redundant, life at the University is all about school. Normal conversations often struggle to get past an exchange of the various things we need to do at that moment. Time spent with our house is universally referred to as a “study break,” reinforcing the thinking that we probably should be studying. Even our humor—everything from T-shirts about how boring, ugly, and tired we are, to Halloween costumes about how boring, ugly, and tired we are—only acts as a self-fulfilling prophesy we can’t seem to let go. “I think a lot of students pride themselves on knowing they’re at a university that really kicks their butt,” said Dr. John McPherrin, psychologist and director of training at the SCRS, in an interview last week. “But that does sort of come at a price.”

That price is bodily and mental well being that we seem to forget about in pursuit of Plato. The mental health screening and wellness fairs, put on every quarter along with other, more targeted wellness events by the SCRS, seek to bring us out of the heavily academic, and heavily stressful, culture of the University. By bringing kickboxing, craft-making, and therapy dogs to the Bartlett Quad, the SCRS wants to remind us to move our bodies, do something creative, and enjoy ourselves for a few minutes. We shouldn’t need events for this.

We’ve normalized stress and academic life to degrees not seen at most other schools. There’s no stigma of “nerd” for staying in on a weekend to write a paper, or spending the majority of the time with your friends sitting around and doing homework. What we haven’t normalized is having fun. We have Chicago as our playground, but leaving Hyde Park is still a struggle. And for some reason, we can all be respected for our intelligence, but not for the ways in which we choose to enjoy ourselves. We don’t categorize ourselves into cliques of “jocks” and “nerds” in any way, unless you’re referring to those who go to frat parties and those who do Scav. In terms of our social lives, we’ve hit a wall.

By putting on wellness events, the SCRS wants to remind us to relax, to remind us not to be so damned stressed all the time. Unfortunately, in pairing the events with mental health screenings, they also imply that there’s something wrong with us. Of the 49 students who participated in mental health assessments during the fair last Wednesday in Bartlett, 34 were encouraged to seek further help with the SCRS. Of course our student population has issues with depression and anxiety; our culture asks us to work tirelessly without reprieve, let alone an A, and our social outlets are limited. But before we start thinking there’s something wrong with us, that we must have a mental health issue because we’re unable to deal appropriately with our environment, let’s consider that maybe our environment is particularly difficult to deal with. That we’re stressed all the time not because we suffer from an anxiety disorder, but because school is hard, and there’s little we do to distract us from that fact.

And that’s what we have to remember when we’re seeking to make ourselves feel better. The University esteems the pursuit of the mind, but loses the pursuit of the self. These are the best years of our lives and more often than not we spend them alone, hunched over, and worried. In our intense and invaluable intellectual development, we are missing the other half of the equation: the development of the greater scheme of our personalities, of our tastes, of our place in wherever it is we wish to find a place in. Who you are is significantly greater than the sum of what you know. But it is easy to forget this at school. In all honesty, we’re not too stressed for our own good; if we were, we’d have much more serious problems on our hands. What we really need to do is stop talking about it, suck it up, and just do the work already. And when that’s done, move on, suck it up, and just have some fun. Four years is too long to waste doing anything else.

Emily Kaiser is a fourth-year in the College majoring in sociology.