TW: suicide, depression
I just got my final grade for a project in one of my hardest classes of this past semester, a project that put me through several panic attacks, crying in public computer labs, pulling out my hair, and contemplating suicide. Even in typing this I am in tears that probably over 50 hours of work rendered a “C.” That telling my professor the hell I went through and the technological difficulties that were out of my control meant nothing to him, meant that my work was just passing quality. I am still upset. I tried to emotionally detach from the results of my project, but when I opened that email and read my grade I couldn’t. He trashed the image quality of what I turned in, something which was out of my control since I wasn’t taught how to use the program we were required to use for our final project. I don’t want to go back to college next semester, especially not to take one last class with him. I think my waves of wanting to end my life have passed, but the fact they even came at all is extremely alarming. And I am not alone. While I was in my darkest place, I did some research and found out that there’s a sickening trend of college students that commit suicide near finals week. I am not alone, and this is a huge, huge problem.
You could say that only already mentally unstable people would be driven to kill themselves because of college, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Even if those of us with mental illness are more likely to be destroyed by the stress of college, college can make anyone reach their breaking point. In college, it is the norm to eat poorly, not sleep, and have constant anxiety and panic attacks. Mental health falls to the wayside as professors assign more and more work. And it doesn’t have to be like this. I have taken classes that are great examples of classes where homework is minimal, and in-class learning is emphasized. Obviously some homework is necessary, but if most college students take 5 classes a semester and each professor expects 3 or more hours in-class a week plus 10 hours outside of class a week, that’s 65 hours a week just on school. Now there’s only 168 hours a week, and we are supposed to use 56 of them to sleep. That leaves us 112 hours to do 168 hours of schoolwork, plus work around 10-20 hours at a job and around two hours for clubs and other involvements. That’s impossible. Why professors don’t realize this, I don’t understand. I have heard countless students crying to professors I’ve had, telling them how their class is driving their mental health into the ground. Does the professor change the format of their class? Never. When we as students come to professors and reveal that we have been mentally suffering because of the amount of work they give us, that’s a cry for help. That’s a chance for them to do something about our suffering, but instead they pin the problem on us and say we need to manage our time better and relax. It’s impossible to do those things when the time to do those things literally does not exist. They think college is the same as it was when they went to school, but it isn’t. We have so much more work, and we are already depressed and anxious enough. What we need from them isn’t harsher grading and harder work, but empathy and understanding. We need them to see us as humans, instead of some abstract idea of a student whose only purpose is to submit high-quality work. When someone is experiencing so much anxiety and stress that their body is in survival mode, their prerogative isn’t to get an “A” and finally earn their professor’s respect (despite the fact that they should already have it for busting their ass all semester), it’s to survive. When professors refuse to have empathy for their students and adapt their classes to their students’ needs, the opportunity for a valuable student-teacher bond is lost, as is the opportunity for that student to really absorb all of the information they are expected to. We aren’t given enough time to learn and do work; we must pick one.
For a long time I thought that this was just how college is and I had to suck it up, and I did this for a long time. But it’s been too many years of losing sleep and transforming into a savage-like version of myself for me to believe this is how college should be. We are living in the most advanced society ever, and we have the power to sculpt our own realities. The current reality is that those in power continue to let those without power suffer under systems that do not function for the rest of us, such as capitalism and white supremacy, and often those who suffer do not question the systems they live under, because we are made to believe that it is out job to not suffer. College does not have to be the most stressful years of a person’s life, where mental illness and unhealthy habits reign. Professors do not have to make classes incredibly difficult, especially because when we are working in our profession we will be able to look up any information we forget, and it is highly probable that we will need to, since we can’t and won’t remember half the things we learned in college. College can be a place for learning about different topics and yourself, a place for personal and professional development, and a place to explore the possibilities the world has for us. College should not be a place we crawl out from screaming on graduation day. I told myself for so long I couldn’t criticize college because I was fortunate enough to get a full tuition scholarship, but with this privilege I am precisely the person who should criticize this institution. Most people end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for their degree, and they shouldn’t have to suffer to get it. This modern world gives us enough mental illness, and college shouldn’t add to it. Despite mental health awareness campaigns, therapy dogs every once in a while, and a counseling center on campus, college students are suffering under the stress of their classes. College students want to escape the one thing they came to college for-classes. None of the other mental health components a college offers will matter if professors continue to treat us like numbers- just another group of students that will pay their bills and hopefully learn a few things. Professors need to be emotionally attached to their students’ success, and this is more than a letter grade.
At the end of the class I was referring to at the beginning of this post, I had to stop putting work into my project. I was running out of time and I was running out of mental stamina. I had cried so hard I had a pounding migraine and I was convinced I would have a heart attack due to the chest pains emanating from my body (I’m sure college students having sudden heart attacks isn’t rare). I had to put my mental and physical health over my grade, and when I told my professor what happened I was hoping that they would understand. Instead, they bulldozed through the humanity I showed them and decided the amount of work I put in meant nothing if my final product wasn’t exactly how they wanted.
Professors need to care about their students’ mental health. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference if I told my professor the deep depression this class drove me into, but I shouldn’t have to tell them I kept thinking of killing myself as the only way out for them to care. It shouldn’t be so hard for them to see their students as human beings who need time to rest and care for themselves, which is impossible if we are given endless work from our professors. I always remember my grade school teachers being there for me. If I had a bad day, I could talk to them. If I was really sick or there was a family emergency, I could make up my work the next day. They saw me as a multi-faceted human being who had other purposes in life than to produce work. I don’t know what happened when we became adults but our educators decided we no longer deserved the same allowances. There was no longer any valid excuse for not turning in quality work on time. Not a single valid excuse. Our only purpose is to be a student. I am not foolish enough to believe this. I know now more than ever that college isn’t for everyone, and they say more and more jobs require a degree now, but I know there are still opportunities for those without a degree. College will continue to not be for everyone as long as it is so expensive and the stress is nearly unbearable. Professors will fail at rendering awakened human beings; instead, their students will walk out of that classroom on their final day and breathe a sigh of relief that their nightmare of a semester is over. For something that is supposed to be the best years of a person’s life, college sure brings us a lot of dread. It fails to promote the idea of a higher purpose for each of us, and seems to be geared towards the same goal as the rest of society- turning us into one more cog in the machine.
I know one day none of this will matter and I will be relieved and happy to walk away from my university with two well-earned degrees, but right now it matters enough to put this out there. I had to suffer mentally and emotionally for the better part of my college years. I will be glad to leave and focus on feeling alive and purposeful, like I do in the summers and breaks between semesters. College students shouldn’t have to reach their breaking point to turn around and feel grateful for their college experience. It’s unnecessary to make the experience any more stressful and distressing than it already is. We are planning for an uncertain future and have enough on our minds and schedules without apathetic professors making their classes as hard as they possibly can. I am thankful for the opportunity to attain a higher education and it has definitely opened up a world of possibility for me. I am proud of the hard work I have done, how I have not procrastinated or been irresponsible, how I have juggled at least two jobs, two clubs, and 5 or more classes per semester. I can look on the positive side and say all of these things about my college experience, but it is only after countless unnecessary tears shed and panic attacks endured. I don’t want to be thankful for my degrees because I had to overcome so many mental and emotional challenges to get them; I want to be thankful for them because of how academically challenged I was to get them. For how much the institution of higher education expects from us students, I expected more from it. And I don’t just expect it now, I demand it.