Student-ing: (n) a combination of social, academic and professional pressures which, when not managed carefully, can lead to a rapid decline in physical and mental health.
I’ve witnessed this spiral firsthand during my time at Berkeley, especially in some of my more ambitious peers within the STEM community. These individuals all seem to share a knack for juggling the same types of high-intensity commitments – demanding coursework alongside multiple high intensity extracurriculars – until one aspect of their life takes a hit.
In the Spring 2016 term (last year at this time), roughly 5 million US college students experienced depression so severe they were unable to function in their daily lives. Less than half of the over 18 million enrolled students that term met basic guidelines for daily physical activity, while a third reported declines in academic or social performance stemming from stress, lack of sleep, or anxiety. Studies done by health professionals out of Louisville and the American Psychological Association show that part of the reason for the poor health of this population stems from a neglect of basic daily activities such as bathing, eating, or socializing – a lack of self-care due to the demands of college life.
The concept of self-care is often talked about when caring for geriatric patients, physicians, and college-aged students. For these three populations, the ability to maintain activities of daily life such as basic hygiene, exercise, and proper nutrition is hampered by age-related degeneration and improper work-life balance. In order to treat these issues, mental health professionals and geriatric caretakers agree on some general self-enforceable guidelines for daily life which can be treated as a “self-care checklist.”
The Self-Care Checklist
- Bathing, personal hygiene, and grooming
- “Have I taken the time to ensure my body is clean and I have trimmed my hair and nails to reflect my investment in personal cleanliness?
- Dressing and undressing
- “Have I dressed in a manner which prepares me to meet the challenges of the day? Have I taken the time to ensure I look my best?”
- Transferring – movement and mobility
- “Have I taken steps to minimize sedentary stretches of time? Am I utilizing my body as it is meant to be used?”
- Toileting: continence-related tasks including control and hygiene
- “Have my daily excretions been regular in schedule, color and consistency? If not, am I taking steps to restabilize my digestive and urinary systems?”
- “Have I consumed the necessary nutrients for the day while maintaining a balanced diet? Am I overeating?”
- “Have I engaged in a satisfying level of human contact today? Have I taken the time to center myself and ensure I have not overexerted myself socially?”
These items seem simple enough to maintain, but often require a great deal of discipline and support from family, friends, or professionals. It is here where the largest pitfall of self-care appears. At times of supreme pressure, elements of stigma make it difficult for individuals to seek necessary help to regain balance. This letter in the New England Journal of Medicine by a pediatric palliative care physician (specialized role in caring for children with serious illnesses) discusses the suicides of two of his peers as well as his own struggles with mental illness. Due to fear of appearing vulnerable or having their competency questioned, physicians facing these challenges often opt to not seek help. The letter ends with a call to action, stating that experiencing mental illness has helped the writer grow as a person and physician, and that it is not something one should be judged for. Similar stigma exists on college campuses, with students reporting a fear of expulsion or lack of medical privacy as a barrier to seeking necessary help.
However, the stigma surrounding mental illness has begun to dissolve thanks to new voices in pop culture. Repackaged and expanded versions of self care guidelines show up all over the place, in places like TV’s Parks and Recreation – Tom and Donna’s mantra of “treat yo self” – and popular rapper Kendrick Lamar’s self-love anthem “i.” The subsequent “memeification” of these kinds of pop culture snippets has caused self-care concepts to be spread around the internet rapidly. The use of a medium which the modern college student population is already so predisposed to using has built the foundation of a generation with a new consciousness regarding self-care.
The digital age has allowed public health officials to spread information and establish support networks to an unprecedented degree, but the influx of their ideas into pop culture is a true victory. If artists continue to use their access to huge audiences this way, I think we can look forward to an interesting shift in how students think about and develop health behaviors.
 Enrollment data (18,003,354 students in Spring 2016) from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, evaluations of the population based on percentages from the ACHA-National College Health Assessment (NCHA)
This post was written by Anyun Chatterjee. Please send any questions or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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