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‘My mind never gets a chance to fully rest’: Students describe burnout from accelerated semester, lack of spring break

Community members report more stress, mental health challenges, call for greater communication, student input, empathy

For the past month, Olivia hasn’t gotten enough sleep. 

She generally aims for eight hours a night, but in the last few weeks, she has averaged only six hours due to her increased workload. Each weekday, Olivia ’22, who asked for her last name to be withheld due to privacy reasons, wakes up at around 9 a.m. to attend virtual class. Afterward, she studies for her four courses and attends Zoom meetings. She takes short breaks to cook and eat, then continues studying late into the night — often until 3 or 4 a.m. — in an attempt to keep up with her coursework. The compressed semester, she said, means she has more deadlines and tasks to complete each week, which cuts into her sleep.

She isn’t alone. Students at the University are feeling the weight of an accelerated semester and the lack of a spring break. More than one year after the University sent students home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning and the context of a public health crisis continues to create unique stressors for students.

Because of her lack of sleep, Olivia started noticing that clumps of her hair were beginning to fall out while brushing it, and after a few weeks, she could feel and see that her hair was thinning out. She said one of her roommates had a similar problem, which they both attributed to stress coupled with a lack of sleep. She’s scarcely had time to enjoy some of her favorite activities such as creating art or seeing friends on the Main Green, she said. 

“I wake up, I do work until I go to bed and I still feel like I’m falling behind,” she said. “I’m the type of person who really like(s) to have my work in on time and really try to understand the material, but at this point I’m definitely just struggling to do the bare minimum.”

Ella Joshi ’21 said this semester has been the most emotionally and mentally difficult one yet for her. She said that being a graduating senior may be part of the reason, as well as the lack of a spring break, the crammed semester and increased screen time because of remote classes.

“It’s just a never ending cycle of midterms, of essays, of things I have to do,” Joshi said. “My mind never gets a chance to fully rest.”

Not all students who spoke to The Herald said that this semester has been unusually challenging. Shuyang Song ’23 wrote in a message to The Herald that this semester is going better than the previous one because she is taking a lighter course load. But Song, who is currently in China, added that the time zone difference, less interaction with classmates and being cooped up has been difficult.

In addition, she wrote, “the current global, U.S. political environment can be a bit toxic.” The recent rise in violence against Asian Americans and the increased tension between the U.S. and China has disturbed her and played into her decision not to find work in the states after graduation, she wrote.

Student groups

“We’ve heard from a lot of students about how stress levels are really elevated this semester due to the lack of a spring break and accelerated semester and professors trying to squeeze as much as they can into a shorter semester,” wrote Disability Justice at Brown Lead Coordinator Sumera Subzwari ’21 in a message to The Herald. In addition to burnout, she added that students have also reported feeling a lack of community.

“I don’t know anyone that has been managing the workload very well,” said Molly Lavin ’21, vice president of the Brown chapter of Active Minds, an organization that promotes mental health awareness for college students. “Obviously, these are unprecedented times, but I think that there’s been really no recognition or acknowledgement of how hard it is to just do a straight semester with no breaks.” 

A nationwide study from fall 2020 surveyed nearly 33,000 college students and found high rates of depression and anxiety. Almost 40 percent screened positive for some form of depression and 34 percent screened positive for some form of anxiety. 

“Even with the current financial uncertainty for institutions of higher education, investments to support student mental health … should be prioritized,” Boston University School of Public Health Assistant Professor Sarah Lipson, who was co-principal investigator in the study, said in an article published in The Brink. 

Evan Dong ‘22, co-coordinator of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma, said that this year the organization has seen an uptick in students reporting mental health needs and requesting Peer Mental Health Advocates. Project LETS is led by and serves students with lived experience with mental illness, and PMHAs are trained by the organization to provide support to their peers. Because PMHAs are also students and experience mental illness exacerbated by the pandemic, the organization is struggling with some capacity issues, Dong added. 

Dong, who is also a Residential Peer Leader and Sexual Assault Peer Education coordinator, said that students are experiencing additional stress because of the pandemic, which disproportionately affects subsets of the student population. Some students may have to support their families at home, Dong said, and the recent uptick in incidents of racialized violence can exacerbate mental health issues for students of color.

There are also now fewer ways of alleviating such stress, Dong said. Creating and fostering community and relationships is more difficult during a pandemic given COVID-19 restrictions on social life, and though Counseling and Psychological Services is useful for many students, they added, some of their services are unavailable to students outside of Rhode Island.

“We are fully committed to serving our community in the ways available to us,” according to a Feb. 26 update posted on the CAPS website. “Due to newly-implemented regulations, CAPS therapists located in Rhode Island are unable to provide telehealth services to students outside of Rhode Island.” 

Forging relationships and finding community has been especially challenging for first years, Dong said. Many felt disappointed by orientation at the start of the semester, and also found it difficult to be unable to see or interact with neighbors due to pandemic restrictions, they added. 

Calls for University action

In the final few weeks of the semester, students shared many suggestions for ways the University could support them, including extending a second S/NC deadline, incorporating more student input into administrative decisions, implementing more days off, offering greater financial support, creating more mental health resources and centering mental and emotional well-being as an institution. 

At its last meeting, the Undergraduate Council of Students proposed a resolution calling on the University to implement measures, such as cancelling University exercises on certain days and encouraging faculty to modify course assessments, to better support students’ mental health, The Herald previously reported.

In an email to The Herald, Dean of the College Rashid Zia encouraged students to take advantage of available mental health resources, including CAPS, Student Support Services deans in Campus Life and academic advising deans.

“We are heartened by the support that faculty, staff and students across our community have extended to one another this semester and throughout the past year,” Zia wrote. “It speaks to the strength and values of our community that so many have asked what they can do to help one another.”

According to the UCS Pre-Opening Decision Poll that surveyed 2,453 undergraduates last summer, about 38 percent of students at the time did not believe that the University administration incorporated enough student input when creating policies around COVID-19.

University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald that the academic calendar was created and approved last summer with recommendations from multiple working groups, including “the Academic Continuity Group, which focused on how best to provide a high-quality academic experience for all students — and the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, in which students participated directly.”

Song wrote that providing financial support like reducing tuition or awarding scholarships would help students facing financial burdens. Joshi said that adding another S/NC deadline could also alleviate some of the academic pressure students face. 

The UCS poll also found that around 46 percent of students at the time felt less stress after the grade option deadline was extended last spring, and nearly 32 percent of students changed at least one of their course grading options. 

Lavin said that though CAPS can be difficult to navigate, it has been a valuable long-term resource for her and can be for others. Still, she wishes there was more proactive outreach from the University about mental health resources, and acknowledgement of the impact the past year has had on students’ mental well-being.

Olivia also said she wishes that faculty and staff would be more understanding of students’ situations.

“We’re in a pandemic and I feel like kindness has kind of gone out the window,” she said. “It just feels like the University does not care about us as students or our mental health.”

“We recognize that for many students, just like for many faculty and staff, this year has been one of the most challenging in our lifetimes,” Clark wrote. “Faculty and staff at Brown are deeply committed to student well-being, both in terms of physical and mental health, and we encourage any student who needs assistance to reach out for the care they need.”

On Wednesday, the University issued a Today@Brown announcement listing various resources available for students, such as reaching out to CAPS or deans in Student Support Services. 

Olivia added that she wishes the University would hold wellness days as other higher education institutions have, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst which offered “Wellbeing Wednesdays.” 

The three-semester model proved to be the safest residential option, with Brown avoiding major COVID-19 outbreaks thus far, Clark wrote. The intent of the academic calendar is to balance required course instruction hours as well as opportunities for days off, he wrote, adding that periods of travel like spring break are not possible from a safety standpoint.

Zia wrote that the long weekend on April 9 to 11 was meant to provide a natural break for students before finals begin. 

But Subzwari wrote that the April 9 day off does not qualify as a break to her, given that it’s one day and close to finals. 

“Professors also need to be more understanding and accommodating when it comes to granting extensions and flexibility on assignments,” Subzwari wrote. 

Clark wrote that faculty have taken the condensed calendar into consideration when planning courses, and that “there is deep support for students across campus, from financial measures, to academic assistance from the College, to safely organized events for students, to help with mental health and well-being through CAPS, Student Support Services and a wide variety of resources and support offered through Campus Life.”

Olivia said that despite having a difficult semester, knowing that she’s not alone has helped her.

“It really sucks that other people are going through it, but it does make me feel a little bit better,” she said. “This is not just a me thing and it’s not like I’m managing my time badly, it’s literally just a product of the accelerated semester.”


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