Home Education & Learning Taking a Look at the Intensity and Mental Health Toll of Advanced Education

Taking a Look at the Intensity and Mental Health Toll of Advanced Education

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For many people, attending university is the most significant source of stress in their life up until that point. Many mental illnesses reveal themselves at around the age of eighteen for this reason. Kids transition into adulthood while in college and experience a combination of factors that can influence their overall well-being. 

On the one hand, they have more responsibilities than they ever have before. On the other hand, they also have less support than ever before. They are removed from their support system and fully responsible for their own success or failure. 

Does getting an advanced degree have to be hard?

Hard? Probably. Most people will be challenged at some point in their college or graduate career. That doesn’t mean the challenge will be overwhelming. It certainly does not mean they will be brought to the brink of failure. It does mean they should prepare for hard work and some occasional stress. 

The difficulty you will experience with your advanced degree will depend on your aptitude – not everyone learns well in the reading and writing environment that most college programs favour – and the difficulty of your programme. It’s easier to major in English than it is in molecular biology. 

Programme intensity

Good news: You can generally decide how intensively you want to pursue your degree. To be considered a full-time student at most colleges you need to take twelve credit hours or more. Most people take about fifteen. Eighteen or more is considered a very high course load. 

How can you decide what courseload is right for you? Here’s a rule of thumb you can follow while making your schedule. At most colleges, every hour you spend in the classroom is supposed to result in two hours of homework. 

If you are taking twelve credit hours, that means twelve hours per week in the classroom and twenty-four theoretical hours of homework per week. In other words, you are putting in a 36-hour academic workweek. 

That’s manageable on its own, but if you stir in other responsibilities, like a job, your schedule can quickly become very demanding. Many c ollege students purposely choose a lighter load their first semester just to ease their way in. 

If you are trying to graduate within four years, speak with your guidance counselor about how to arrange your schedule. Most people will have room for a lighter semester or two in their four-year plan. 

Social isolation

Advanced education also removes some people from their support system. This can happen very directly, in the case of students who relocate to far-away campuses. It can also happen in smaller ways.

Many people spend the first twelve years of their academic journey surrounded by approximately the same people. When they graduate from high school, everyone goes off in different directions. It is possible to retain your high school social circle. However, most people find that they don’t have access to their friends, or even their family members in the same way that they always used to. 

Ideally, college freshmen will begin building a new social network on campus. However, this is easier said than done; especially as they try to adjust to college-level workloads. Consider exploring extracurriculars that reflect your interest. You may be surprised (and delighted) to find how many niche clubs and student-led organizations your campus provides. 

New responsibility

College students are responsible for their own outcomes. In high school, when a student falls behind or stops showing up to class, a guidance counselor will call their parents and arrange for a meeting. There are systems in place designed to make sure that no one slips through the cracks. 

These systems don’t exist at the collegiate level; at least not in the same way. Sure, there are support resources. Tutoring, professors with office hours. Study guides and supplementary materials. 

What do all of these resources have in common? They require student initiative. You have to seek this help out on your own. Otherwise, you won’t get it. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that degree completion is becoming increasingly rarer. A recent study showed that up to 30% of college students fail to achieve their degree. By comparison, only 4% of high school students drop out. 

Yes, the work is harder. The study sessions are more intense. However, it is time management and commitment that often cut people’s collegiate journeys short. 

How to manage university stress

Despite the stress factors, many people have very positive college experiences. Here are a few ways to reduce stress and enjoy what can and should be a rewarding transitional period in your life. 

  • Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness habits are all about recognising and responding to your feelings. In the busy thrum of routine, it is easy for stress and anxiety to fester on a subconscious level. That tension or restlessness you feel could owe to a larger cause. By taking a few moments to explore your feelings, you’ll be better positioned to deal with them. 
  • Don’t overextend yourself. University campuses are bursting with opportunities. Clubs, social experiences – literally hundreds of ways to get involved. These can be very pleasant experiences, but it is important not to overcommit. Prioritize learning, and add new extracurricular activities slowly, as you come to better understand your bandwidth. 
  • Take advantage of campus support resources. University campuses have loads of different student support resources. Some emotional – others academic. Assess your needs and learn more about what help opportunities your school offers. Chances are, you’ll find that there are support opportunities that address your needs. 

Going to university is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly difficult either. While it may not feel like it at the moment, undergraduate studies represent a small fraction of your life. You can withstand the challenges and come out the other side with a degree in four years. Set yourself up for success. Work hard. Understand your bandwidth. Seek the help you need. 

Going to university can be a wonderful experience when you approach it the right way.

Samantha Green, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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