As a rigorous math and science institute, IMSA gives off the impression that its students are constantly working themselves to exhaustion. For a lot of students, this is reality. Since IMSA students tend to exemplify studious and stressed qualities, a lot of us struggle to maintain a good mental health. Before coming to IMSA, several students learned in an environment where mental health was stigmatized, so upon arrival to IMSA, they are often surprised at seeing the abundance of resources—mental health days, stress mods, guidance counselors, residence counselors (RCs), and SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness, Resiliency, and Knowledge for Mental Wellness) initiatives—readily available to students. As there are plenty of mental health resources for students to access, IMSA’s social culture should, in principle, reflect a destigmatized culture of mental health. However, several factors including the restrictions placed on these resources, superficial solutions to mitigating students’ stressors, and even students’ mindsets toward mental health work towards the re-stigmatization of mental health at IMSA.
Stress mods at IMSA are an option for students to skip one of their mods without worrying about receiving unexcused absences or attendance points. Last school year, stress mods were an opportunity for students to take a break if they hadn’t gotten enough sleep the previous night, weren’t feeling emotionally well enough to go to class, or just needed a break in their day to relax and calm down. As long as they had no tests or presentations in class that day, they could take the mod off. However, last year, students began to abuse these privileges. Sometimes, students would take a stress mod to study for another test or because they didn’t like a certain class, both choices which don’t align with the purpose of stress mods. As a result, there is a severely increased number of restrictions put on students’ ability to take a stress mod this year. For instance, students are no longer allowed to take a stress mod if they haven’t gotten enough sleep. Instead, counselors have to refer them to the nurse’s office so that they can lie down for 10–15 minutes before going back to class. Unfortunately, one of the main problems facing IMSA students is their lack of sleep contributing to their overwhelming stress levels. IMSA is a community that should strive to respect others as well as keep them safe. However, some students are suffering because of their peers’ decisions to take advantage of the resources given to them. Now, if a student hasn’t gotten enough sleep or just needs a small break so that they can be productive for the rest of their day, their only option is to take a mental health day.
Mental Health Days
Recently, students have become more vocal about their opinions towards the restrictions on mental health days (MHDs) and stress mods. In Illinois, students are allowed five mental health days per school year. While students at IMSA are allowed to take these mental health days, various factors such as the lack of accessibility to stress mods and faculty aid for students who have taken MHDs can make taking a MHD more stressful than not. Interviewee Sabriya Attia states that she “has never taken a stress mod” because her peers have attempted to and “been refused by counselors even though they had legitimate reasons to take a stress mod.” As a result, she has been “too scared to take a stress mod.” At IMSA, Attia has taken one MHD and reported that “it was a relaxing and much needed experience. That day, my mom came on campus, and we got lunch together. I was able to talk to her about what was happening, and by the time I got back, I felt so much better.” Fortunately for Attia, she lives not too far from campus and was able to get in touch with someone she felt comfortable talking to. Several students, however, don’t have easy access to someone outside of IMSA and must rely on their counselors and peers in stressful times. But as Attia said, students like herself are often too scared to seek help from counselors or ask to take a stress mod for fear of getting turned down. How can IMSA say that they prioritize mental health when students fear utilizing their resources?
Effects of Mental Stress on Physical Health
An aspect of mental health that is consistently neglected at IMSA is the influence of one’s physical health on their mental health and vice versa. Attia sheds light on this topic by explaining that when she was really sick “and had trouble breathing and focusing in class,” her main stressor was about being able to catch up on missed material. As Attia experienced it, her physical health notably weighed down on her mental health. As the Mental Health Foundation explains it, “Physical health problems significantly increase our risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa,” and “Nearly one in three people with a long-term physical health condition also has a mental health problem.” When students are suffering from an extended period of mental distress, it can begin to harm their physical health making their overall IMSA schedule less productive and more stressful. IMSA needs to recognize this and take action to teach students about healthy coping strategies to manage their stress.
Superficial Stress-Relieving Initiatives
IMSA prides themselves on their advocacy for mental health. At the beginning of each school year, IMSA hosts a Mental Health Initiative Assembly featuring a guest speaker followed by a week (MHI week) dedicated to improving students’ mental health. However, rather than providing students with skills to deal with their mental health on a daily basis, MHI week largely focused on superficial stress-relieving strategies such as bringing in therapy dogs, building stuffed animals, and having a spa night. While all of these strategies may help temporarily release stress, there are no lasting effects. When finals week rolls around and IMSA students have an endless stream of projects, presentations, and papers due, they lack the ability to cope with their stress in healthy ways. Instead, they resort to staying up all night and nearly burning themselves out in the process. If IMSA focused more on long-term healthy coping strategies for students, they may be able to significantly improve their mental well-being.
Although it’s true that administration has a long way to go to improve mental health at IMSA, students also have a responsibility to their peers to help relieve stress and diminish the stigma surrounding mental health. The academic culture of IMSA is very demanding. Someone is always having a conversation about what grade they got on an assignment or what their SAT score is. Sometimes, students can get caught up in all of the commotion and forget that this type of conversation can be very damaging to not only themselves but the people around them. When it comes to prioritizing their mental health, students may not take a MHD or stress mod for fear of being thought of as “weak” or incapable of handling the demands of IMSA that everyone else seems to be able to handle. As a result of this stigma, too many students persistently engage in unhealthy habits such as staying up late, working themselves to exhaustion, and overcommitting themselves. But, everyone struggles with mental health. Students should surround themselves with people who don’t drain their mental energy, and they should also do their best to ensure that their peers are getting the help that they need. By doing both, the mental health culture and IMSA can and will improve.