University and Universality – Why can’t we treat mental health like my law exams?

Our notion of stress makes no sense. Whilst some forms of stress and anxiety are acceptable in society, others simply aren’t. And every April, this societal norm becomes increasingly visible.

In light of mental health struggles, exam season is a tricky time for me. Though I’m beyond stressed, it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this is stress that I can control, stress that can be obviated through a simple process known as revision. Alas, if only I could study how to reduce compulsive behaviour, reduce my paranoia, and quell anxiety – only then would the world feel fair.

Unlike the way we speak, or avoid speaking, about mental health, exam stress is universally acknowledged – and almost encouraged. Depending on where you are in the world, and especially the UK, your career prospects are considerably dependant – and in some fields, contingent – on getting a high 2:1. Whether you’re looking into getting a vacation scheme or want to pursue further education, your degree classification is almost seen as a definitive summation of your abilities. To be stressed with exams is to be stressed with your future prospects – and for many, to be stressed with your future happiness. From a logical standpoint, this makes perfect sense! I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? It’s a shame, however, that despite the exact same – if not more encroaching implications it can have – we don’t see mental health the same way.

If I went up to someone and said I was stressed because I was convinced that someone was planning to hurt me simply because of a bad look I might’ve gotten while looking their way, I’d get sighs left, right, and centre; I’d be judged, berated, and even criticised for such seemingly absurd thoughts. And yet, these are the kinds of thoughts I experience on a day-to-day basis. But if you go up to someone and tell them that you’ve been wasting your days away stressing over how you’re going to recite a textbook worth of material, a few cases you’ve memorised through no other method than rote memorisation, and ultimately spew out opinions that have been assigned to you over the year in the span of two and a half hours onto a piece of paper, it’s seen as perfectly valid stress. Apparently knowing the laws that govern mortgages defines how worthy of a career you are and how sustainable of a life you’re allowed to have. This is the logic our world seems to be predicated upon.

Exam stress is taken at face value. Mental health, however, is not. Unlike mental health, exams are – at least within student groupings – something that everyone is familiar with and willing to talk about. By contrast, mental health is often disregarded or given only a few seconds of real attention. We talk vaguely about it, but never really delve into it, leaving us with the option to scrape at the surface, but never really break the ice. If, however, we began to talk as frequently about mental health as our exams, then the world would ultimately become a better place. Making these conversation more commonplace, realising our innately human deficiencies, and treating one another is what has the intrinsic power to change humanity for the better. Getting a first in a module you’re not particularly enthused about solely to use it to your advantage when applying to a company that exploits the lives of those in developing countries, however, will not bring about change.

Exams are tough, but they’re also temporary; they represent your abilities at a certain place in time, following a certain number of readings and lectures, and how you’re able to best express that knowledge within a set number of hours. They’re seen as being indicative of your academic abilities at one point in your life, but show no consideration for who you really are, what you care about, and what you’ve been through. Put simply, exams should mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Mental health, on the other hand, is ongoing; it affects how you experience the world, your ability or inability to be resilient, and, ultimately, your humanity. So let’s stop pretending that our exam scores are a reflection of our stress, our strengths, and our weaknesses and focus on the aspects of life that really ought to be the ones that bog us down: our emotions, our struggles, and our everyday problems. Whilst these conversations will inevitably be difficult, they’ll bring us together way more than a few hours spent writing in cramped dingy rooms; these are the conversations that will truly matter.

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