Stress has been described as a modern epidemic and is the second most commonly reported work-related illness.[i] Increases have been reported in a wide variety of groups and occupations and higher education is no exception. Evidence suggests that levels of student stress have risen significantly over the last thirty years or so.[ii] These findings confirm the anecdotal experience of many of those teaching in universities and working in student health services who are told by students about the impact of stress on their ability to concentrate and focus effectively. Moreover, there are particular reasons why stress can pose more problems for students than for other groups and occupations. The fact that academic study requires intensive and sustained intellectual performance throughout a programme of study which may last many years means that there is relatively little leeway for students to ease off when they are affected by the normal stresses and strains of life. Difficult periods which reduce a student’s capacity to work effectively can quite easily spiral into a cycle of anxiety affecting performance in turn leading to greater anxiety. This problem is not new and was described by student health professionals in the 1960s:
‘Whereas an engineer’s apprentice or a farmer’s boy can suffer the normal depressions and anxieties of growing up without his employment being much affected, it is impossible for a student to suffer even transitory disturbances without his work suffering. He then begins to drop behind his colleagues; this produces a secondary anxiety which in turn also adversely affects his study and makes his problems worse in a vicious circle’.[iii]
If students were particularly susceptible to the negative effects of stress on their work sixty years ago, the more competitive and demanding environment in which most students now study and the challenges faced in securing employment after graduation have inevitably compounded the danger that the effects of a short period of stress can escalate into a major problem which undermines a student’s capacity to work effectively. It is not surprising that the 2010 NUS National Union of Students study on stress described found very high level of ‘silent’ suffering.
[ii] TwengeJM. , GentileB, DeWallN, Ma D, LacefieldK, Schurtz, D R. ‘Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI’ Clinical Psychology ReviewVolume 30, Issue 2, March 2010, Pages 145–154; Misra, R and McKean, M (2000) ‘College students’ academic stress and its relation to their anxiety, time management, and leisure satisfaction’. American Journal of Health Studies, Wntr, 2000 Volume: 16 Issue: 1; National Union of Students Scotland (2010), Silently Stressed: A Survey into Student Mental Wellbeing at: http://www.nus.org.uk/en/campaigns/campaigns-in-scotland/student-mental-health/silently-stressed/
[iii] Malleson, N (1962) The Influence of Emotional Factors on Achievement in University Education Reproduced in: Society for Research into Higher Education, ‘Students in Need’ 1978.