The mental image associated with the phrase “self-care” is an inviting one — a bubble bath, candles, a hike or a good meal. In general, it is the idea of being able to temporarily escape the pressures of daily life. However, these activities require time, a resource in which most of us are already lacking.
Tending to our mental health has just become another item on an already-overflowing checklist with which students must keep up, which is counterproductive. Not only does this view diminish the importance of mental health, it can also lead to further damage because it creates guilt when students are unable to balance school, work and mental health.
Unfortunately mental health and professional achievement have been placed in direct opposition to each other. We often have a “more is better” mindset when it comes to career building. We study hard, but we could study even harder, get an even better job and make even more money. Taking time for mental health becomes a missed opportunity to accomplish something within an academic or professional arena.
However, health professionals have pointed out the potential harms of this attitude, and many institutions are taking steps to address the issue in arenas such as academia. The UA Wellness website lists the mental health resources available to students, most notably Counseling and Psychological Services. CAPS offers individual counseling sessions, group therapy and crisis counseling with the goal of providing healthy coping mechanisms for the stress students face.
Personally, I have benefitted a great deal from CAPS and learning how to manage pressure, but that is not to say that self-care does not come at a price. At the beginning of the semester, I decided to make my mental health a priority, and as a result my grades have taken a hit. I’ve flunked a few assignments because I chose to go to bed instead of pulling an all-nighter, and frankly I still feel guilty about it.
At the end of the day, self-care does not pay the bills and because of that, prioritizing it will always feel like a waste of time in comparison to activities with concrete payoff. I can’t zen my way to the top of a competitive job market, and graduate school applications are not going to accept “I just chose to prioritize my mental health” as a reason for a mediocre GPA.
All the yoga and bubble baths in the world won’t change the fact that we operate in a culture where efficiency is currency. While resources like CAPS are both good and necessary, the reality is that they can’t fix the large-scale issue: the way students are taught to prioritize.
Pushing mental health while maintaining the “more is better” attitude toward achievement accomplishes nothing of value. It only puts something new on the plate without taking something else away, which can ultimately make the problem worse.
Additionally, with so much emphasis placed on mental health and self-care, there is a very real guilt that comes with neglecting it. In other words, students might experience anxiety about how we’re too busy to deal with our anxiety.
We live in a culture that demands we do it all and that we do it while staying happy, healthy and emotionally stable. These are not reasonable expectations. It’s up to us to decide how we want to structure our lives and what to prioritize, but it is also important to recognize that we can’t balance everything all the time. It can be beneficial to utilize resources like CAPS to help manage stress, but in a society where measurable accomplishments are all that matter, the bigger problem remains.
Putting “exceptional mental stability” on a resume will accomplish very little because we live in a results-oriented world, but that also doesn’t mean we must live our lives in that way.