There was a thoughtful documentary in the festival last year made by a MIT graduate about the link between academic stress and mental health. I quite admired the young filmmaker Sahar Hakim-Hashemi because she not only had to open up about her own mental health to make the film, but she also had to risk reaching out to other students about their experiences as well, and maybe even risk being critical of the prestigious MIT culture. Unsurprisingly, once Sahar opened up the dialogue, she found several other students had experiences similar to her own. The MIT culture of obsessive studying and working, for many students, created an environment of social isolation, poor dietary and sleeping habits, and competitiveness for academic achievement as self-worth that led many to spiral into depression and suicidal thoughts. Many of them gave candid interviews, some anonymously, about how their time at MIT stressed or severed personal relationships and jeopardized both their physical and mental health, and how reflecting afterward they realized it was just a school and just grades.
I could relate to the documentary on a personal level as a middle-aged student navigating law school at a glacial pace. I put so much pressure on myself and stress myself out so much during finals, to the fact where I do get obsessive for a couple of weeks and neglect my health and social life—well, maybe more than I already do. Law school encourages this culture as well as it’s not uncommon for a timed three or four-hour final exam to be worth 100 percent of your grade and therefore a test representing everything you’ve learned over the course of a semester, so it certainly feels like the stakes are high when studying for that test. I probably feel added pressure from the fact that my employer reimburses me based on grades, so a grade can be not only a matter of pride but a potential savings of thousands of dollars for me. Needless to say, I become a ball of nerves during the two-week reading period before the exam (well again, maybe more than I already am).
I therefore experience some of the same stressors discussed in Sleep Is For The Strong. I know most students feel the way I do, or most serious ones. One of my colleagues confided in me once “I can’t let myself get the way I did last semester at finals, I made myself crazy.” Like students at MIT, I love school and love the work, the challenge of it and feeling productive. Certainly living alone through the pandemic I was so grateful for my studies and looked forward to burying myself in casebooks. And every semester once my finals are finished and in the rearview mirror a bit, I barely remember them or their specifics, despite spending so many frantic hours studying and researching for them. I think it’s common for academic achievement and anxiety to go hand in hand. But in the end, it’s just school and it’s just grades, not the real world.