Open Book: Mental Health and… Pressure

Everyone’s mental health is different. No two people experience their environment in the same way, and so the pressures and difficulties we face at LSE are as diverse as the student body itself. This blog is an exploration of how people from all walks of life approach and understand their mental wellbeing, be it with diagnosable conditions or just dealing with the pressures of university life.

It’s the first day of term, and a good friend and I sit down in Lincoln’s Inn’s Bean Counter to discuss how his university experience has affected his mental health. An economist by training, his understanding of the issue is apologetically intellectual, and heavily theory-led. His endearing mannerisms are contrasted by an undeniable intelligence and wit, which seem central to his sense of identity.

But how does such a bright and hardworking person struggle with mental health?

The answer, he explains, is pressure. It’s no secret that people struggle with the pressures of LSE: the heavy workload, the high-achieving student body, and perpetual focus on careers can be enough to make the most intelligent of people feel insecure. What makes it harder, he adds, is that these pressures are loosely defined, forcing everyone to produce their own interpretations of what it is to be a successful student.

A lot of these goals that we derive for ourselves can be unachievable. Thoughts such as “I should be getting all firsts,” and “my job applications shouldn’t be rejected” all create an idealised vision of what success is, and any minor deviation from these goals can be crushing. Furthermore, we often have a tendency to set our goals based on our largest weaknesses: why should someone who takes pride in their intelligence be judging their self-worth on their popularity? This question resonated with me – I’ve long been guilty of beating myself up over my career prospects, even though my professional ambitions have never been important to my identity.

Why do we do this? The explanation my friend offers is compelling as it is eye-opening: we live in an environment that rewards achievement, not improvement. Our school careers are often motivated by achieving a grade, our social media accounts angled towards receiving more comments and likes. While this is well-known, the impact that these rewards systems can have on our sense of self is not widely discussed.

When our success is reduced to a number or letter, it suppresses our identity into something measurable: the higher the number, the better the person. While there is a sense of awareness on campus that grades aren’t everything, our student body is often guilty of lauding achievement over personality. This can lead to comparison, envy, and negativity about our own achievements. Why did she get that internship and I didn’t? Why does he get higher grades than me?

But is there a solution to this perennial problem? The first step is to acknowledge it. While people often articulate their stress clearly, it is much rarer to admit that the pressures we experience can affect our sense of self-worth. To carry on pretending that university pressures aren’t difficult to deal with encourages those who struggle to meet expectations to feel they are alone. But it’s not a rare phenomenon at all: our conversation in the Bean Counter adopts a cathartic tone as we realise that isn’t just us that feel we aren’t good enough. Even those who regularly excel, such as this week’s interviewee, are liable to feeling incompetent in the face of such persistent and reductive pressures.

Of course, to talk is not everything. But the realization that there are many others who struggle with feeling good enough in a high-pressure environment can be empowering. And this empowerment might be all that’s needed for someone who’s suffering to take the next step.

Will Banks

If you are struggling with your mental health, LSE has a number of resources available to help you. Visit https://info.lse.ac.uk/current-students/student-wellbeing/mental-health-support for more information.

If you require urgent support, the Samaritans offer free and confidential support UK-wide on 116 123.

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