"For far too long I operated under the collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success." -- Arianna Huffington
Halloween 2014 was perhaps the most atypical of all Halloweens. I was surrounded not by the echoing giggles and chattering of trick-or-treaters in my hometown of Shelton, Connecticut -- as had been the case for the past 14 years -- but by a vacuum of tranquility that transcended through the empty halls of my college dorm like a sedated phantom. I was in my room, a cream-colored garden in which the weeds of insomnia ran rampant. Lana Del Rey crooned softly in the background, her voice serving as an audial anesthetic for the painful boredom that accompanied my calculus homework. Everyone else in my learning community -- with the exception of two sophomore Peer Advisors -- was outside, their costumed and decorated silhouettes lighting up the already electrified city of Ann Arbor, Michigan among a crowd of Supermen, Amy Winehouses and Marilyn Monroes. It was a Friday night, nonetheless, and I had initially made a promise to myself that I would take a night off from studying. But like many other cases, differential equations, biology textbook reading and statistics note taking came first. The seemingly unbreakable vow was severed, and so Friday night became a school night.
Looking back, it would be foolish to describe the first semester of my freshman year at the University of Michigan as anything other than "gilded." I was, like many of my pre-health peers, stressed beyond words -- and on many occasions beyond reason -- but at the same time, adamant to the idea that school could be too difficult to handle. The more I studied, the less I slept and in turn, the more exhausted I became during the day. While I never shed a tear over the workload, the fatigue I felt, along with the resistance I attempted to put up against it, slowly paralyzed me from the inside out, rendering me anxious, confused and frustrated. My grades failed to, in my eyes, reflect the effort I was putting into my academics, and this perception of self-failure drove me towards a burn out. I looked in the mirror each morning and saw deep bags hovering around my eyes, looked into the faces of my friends and saw bloodshot pupils reflecting back at me.
But I did not for one second stop to think about the potential negative impacts of my lifestyle, simply because I was so blinded by my goal of being the best. The transition from high school to a large public university proved to be a great challenge, but it was my refusal to believe in the very existence this challenge that made it that much more detrimental. I was stressed, but that was normal and healthy. Right?
Indeed, it was only when I began to volunteer as a tutor in the Eating Disorders Unit of the local children's hospital that I came to grips with the principle of mental health. Being around children who wake up each morning feeling disgusted by their own physical appearances, who often against their own will internalize their anxiety and vulnerabilities by mutilating their own bodies, made me realize that "self-care" is more than a term thrown around by university administrators and the occasional wise relative who appears out of nowhere during the holiday season. Seeing children as young as the age of seven weighed down by stress and worry that should not be carried by even the most mature of adults opened my eyes in ways that no psychology textbook can begin to do. As an aspiring healthcare professional, I realized that in my determination to achieve a career as a provider to others, I neglected my own health and distanced myself from my dreams. Stress, as I realized, may be widespread on a college campus, but it is hardly an ideal catalyst of success. Students who deprive themselves of relaxation, who drive their brains into a black hole of exhaustion, are by no means poor students but they are on many occasions blinded by a false definition of achievement. Like birthday cake donuts and Fox News articles, stress is dangerous in high quantities and toxic to one's health when unregulated.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about how, where and even if mental health can fit into the life of a young student, and in the process have realized that stress is, as many studies show, a defining feature of the millennial generation. We are, as many students know too well, sleep deprived and much more cognizant about financial burdens than previous generations (the latter of which can be partly explained by the exponentially increasing cost of higher education, but that's another story). Suicide and depression rates have dramatically increased in young populations within the past 30 years, and can be linked not to a decline in access to mental health services (although this is an issue that needs dire attention), but to a newly emerging and distorted perception of what "good" mental health means. In a combined effort to keep up with the rapidly developing world of technology and media -- a world that was only a seedling 30 years ago -- we have become programmed to live life like a professional race car driver and aspire for speed, efficiency and multitasking. We have, in turn, compromised our health without even realizing it.
As if that were not enough, our very age often discredits us and induces an extra pressure to prove our capabilities to those senior to us. We are, as seen through the eyes of many of our elders, narcissistic, overly idealistic, naïve and from personal experience, "just plain crazy." Yet we are even more so creative, innovative, opportunistic and as pointed out by TIME Magazine's "The Me Me Me Generation" cover story in 2013, "pragmatic at a time when it can be difficult just to get by." We may be stressed, but we are also storytellers, free spirits, innovators, future politicians and community activists and in some cases, and social media experts. It is amazing what young people can do when we are given a chance, both by each other and by those older than us.
I challenge all young people to do what makes you happy, whether that is writing in a journal nightly or binge watching Orange is the New Black or even meditating for five minutes every morning. I challenge all young people to thrive in everything they do and use technology and education to connect with others while at the same time ignoring the labels that accompany adolescence. Stress is to some degree inevitable, but greatness is achieved when we refuse to let it cast a shadow over the otherwise illuminating beauty of youth.
The HuffPost Campus Editors-at-Larges at the HuffPost 10th anniversary party.
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