October 2nd, 2020
“I’ve always been a bad test-taker,” is what I told my mom on the phone between sobs after having sprinted out of my first college exam before even opening my blue book. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t prepared. I had, though I never imagined my stomach would make the final call. As soon as I entered the classroom my forehead broke into a sweat and I could feel my stomach wrestling a knot the size of lunch an hour before. If I didn’t leave, and leave immediately, something extremely unladylike was about to happen. I shoved my blue book back in my bag and hauled ass to the nearest restroom. By the time I returned, the exam had already begun and I was left feeling gutted –– literally and figuratively.
Now a college senior, I can identify this experience as the genesis of anxiety’s control over my life. I had always dealt with elevated feelings of nervousness, before a competition or when taking the SAT, but this time was different. If I had to pinpoint what changed, I suppose it would be that, unlike most UNC freshmen, I was not happy to be at Carolina. My grandpa attended Yale, my grandmother Stanford, and me –– I had worked far too hard in high school to end up at a state school.
My family has a long tradition of academic excellence and those accomplishments ultimately determine your familial value. These expectations, unspoken of course, shaped my high school experience, and I did everything I could to score admission to an Ivy university; but after killing myself over following in my grandparents’ footsteps, my best still wasn’t good enough. I was deferred from Yale and ultimately rejected. I settled for UNC, feeling painfully mediocre in my family’s eyes.
The majority of the time, I can recognize how silly this is. UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the best schools in the country, not to mention only a fraction of students actually get into Ivy League universities; but my mind is still haunted by how that rejection, or rather failure, seemingly defined me.
Starting school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I didn’t expect fears of failure to follow me or for such worries to manifest physically. And even though I didn’t know it, my first exam was merely a foreshadowing of how anxiety would come to shape my college career.
My only comfort is at least I’m not alone...and maybe even normal.
According to the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, it is well studied that college students experience higher rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population; and during this period of social isolation, uncertainty and abrupt transitions, it’s important to consider that students are prone to further worsening of these feelings
A study from Dartmouth College demonstrates the negative impact that this time has had on the emotional well-being of college students, with self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety within a student research group spiking noticeably at the onset of COVID-19.
“We observed a large-scale shift in mental health and behavior compared to the observed baseline established for this group over previous years,” noted Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer on psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth.
After eight months of the world having been turned upside down, I can testify to the fact that college students like myself have struggled immensely during this time; but despite respected researcher’s confirmation of how the ongoing crisis has deepened students’ mental health challenges, it is not clear that the university understands it. If anything, UNC-Chapel Hill has turned up the pressure on students and recent graduates with emails and rhetoric along the lines of, “How are you improving yourself during this time?” As someone who already pressures themselves enough, the university’s additional demands are pushing me to my limits.
UNC-Chapel Hill has always had a high standard for student excellence. As well as a selective admissions process, UNC intensely encourages students to excel once they’re here. To remain a prestigious institution, UNC must maintain a shining class of students and for this reason, despite the host of mental health resources available to students, there is still a stigma. Worse, often there is no forgiveness for how mental health conditions impact students’ academic success.
While an academically rigorous environment can help foster academic achievements, the stress and high expectations of the Carolina community can negatively impact students’ mental health, and even more so as the 2020 school year bears little resemblance to normalcy. In the challenges that COVID-19 presents, the university should be making additional efforts to support student welfare.