Students feel ‘burnt out’ at the end of an accelerated virtual semester

‘It’s just the same thing over and over and over again’

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Parker Peters / Daily Collegian

Completing mundane and repetitive academic tasks often late into weeknights, Caroline Campbell is exhausted but “still kickin’.” Campbell, a sophomore business student, is one of many students who feel “burnout” at the end of the University of Massachusetts’ accelerated and virtual school semester that is a result of efforts to deter the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kind of what it feels like is the movie Groundhog Day where it’s just the same thing over and over and over again, like all the weeks are the same,” Campbell said.

Some students have also expressed distress on social media and through op/eds over the difficulties of having last semester and academic year in the midst of the pandemic.

The phenomena of burnout is not a new concept. Burnout, defined as mental or physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged periods of stress, is experienced by many students in any given semester. Professor Karen Kalmakis, however, believes that burnout does not accurately describe the current state of college students’ stress.

Kalmakis is an associate professor of nursing at the University and is a part of the stress research group, studying the ways in which stress impacts relationships and mental health and manifests itself in individuals. Kalamakis states that burnout is a term that she often sees used for medical professionals who deal with sick and dying patients, different from the experience of college students in the last semester.

“I would say more likely that they [students] are feeling prolonged stress and that that stress is likely, for many people, taking a toll on their physical and mental health. It is possible instead of calling it burnout, I would call it post-traumatic stress,” she said. College students who have previous childhood trauma might be experiencing a greater stress response, or PTSD to a greater extent during the pandemic, she added.

Kalamakis is most concerned with the effects that the pandemic and accompanying stress will have on the academic and social success of those who are less resilient, or less able to cope with adversity.

“Things like this isolation that we all feel, and this lack of engagement socially, those [people] are the ones who are most at risk for all of the things that we worry about… and then sometimes they turn to things to help them to cope, which are not helping, like, drinking and using substances or… overeating,” Kalmakis said.

Like Kalmakis, Christopher Overtree, a lecturer in the psychology and education departments, believes those that already have stressors present and little support in their lives will be more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. He says stressors related to family, health and trauma are already known to make an impact on mental health and will only increase that likelihood resulting from the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the pandemic bringing more of those stressors to more people. And with less support, primarily, because we don’t have access to the same social connections that we normally do,” Overtree said.

According to Overtree, however, although other stressors related to the pandemic might have long-term effects on mental health, the accelerated semester itself will not.

“I don’t think that the accelerated experience or college semester is going to have long term impacts on students, adolescents and young adults,” said Overtree, who is also a clinical psychologist and school consultant. “I do think that the pandemic itself, its protracted length and the sacrifices that young adults and children have had to make to be part of the public health solution to this pandemic, I definitely think those are going to have long term effects.”

Overtree says students can cope with the stressors from the academic year, as well as the pandemic, in the same ways that have always been beneficial for mental health, like getting sufficient amounts of sleep, careful use of substances and exercise. He also highlighted that some of the changes that come with the pandemic can be utilized in a beneficial way.

“The pandemic has basically inserted a pretty significant delay in many people’s lives…this delay is really stressful,” Overtree said. “But there’s another side to it, and that we can find a way to allow some of the things in our lives to unfold at as natural paces possible that we can try to slow ourselves and I know many of the people I’ve worked with have found some benefits of being able to slow down.”

Though, “slowing down” is not what students have experienced by any means. Campbell, for example, despite utilizing time management skills and creating a schedule for herself, has found the line between work and life blurred. She says that because it takes longer to finish assignments (resulting from her feelings of “burnout”), she has less time to do things that are stress relieving and that make her happy.

“You’re stressed about being stressed and stressed about not being able to do the things that make you not stressed,” Campbell said.

Similarly, freshman computer science student Mano Dakshin has struggled with being online for his first year of college. “[The pandemic] has blurred the line [between work life and school life] because I get more homework and less free time,” he said. “The mental health symptoms I’ve experienced as a result of online learning was isolation and fear of missing out.”

Learning over Zoom has been difficult for Dakshin, and Kalamakis noted this difference in online learning, that Zoom created a “lack of the interactions and the engagements that make us human.”

“There’s that sort of lack of levity, lack of humor, this lack of just glances at people, or looking over and seeing someone smiling, taking notes, you’re just sort of taking in your environment, and that environment is a human one and it’s, it’s an environment in which you see yourself as part of a group,” Kalamakis said. “I don’t think Zoom does that too, because I don’t think people feel part of that group.”

Dakshin also said, “The accelerated semester has given me less time to rejuvenate my mental and physical health.”

One of the University’s attempts to reduce the stress of the semester and “rejuvenate” students was to replace week-long breaks and federal holidays with Wellbeing Wednesdays. That plan was met with frustration by both students, though especially Campbell.

“A one day break in the middle of the week is like, I’m still going to be doing my work that I have for my next two days of classes. And it’s not really a break,” Campbell said regarding her Wednesdays off.

Elizabeth Cracco, assistant vice chancellor of campus life and wellbeing, addressed the University’s goal in implementing Wellbeing Wednesdays.

“Wellbeing Wednesdays have gotten significant press, both positive and negative. These days are important opportunities to take a time out, but more is needed of course. Creating a culture of wellbeing on this campus will require all sectors of our community to deeply understand both what promotes wellbeing and what are barriers,” she said via email.

Cracco works with many other members of administration to assess the state of stress among students. Cracco says although stress is common among students, this year’s circumstances are unique.

“I think we are all experiencing the effects of longer-term stress. Whether acute or low-level, we have all faced uncertainty, some increased level of isolation, and for some significant losses whether of loved ones, or just the typical experiences we expect to have in life, such as celebrations, milestones, social settings,” Cracco said.

The wellbeing survey, administered by Marcy Clark via email throughout the year, is one way that the University assesses students’ level of stress. The survey attempts to gather information on the stress levels of students, how they are coping, sources of their stress, as well as the resources they are utilizing.

“While we are awaiting survey results from our most recent wellbeing survey, data throughout the year suggest that one of the main reasons students are seeking services at [the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health] is not only anxiety, but a struggle with focus,” Cracco said.

The University then utilizes the information gathered from the surveys in many different ways, including “informing our campus-wide strategic plan related to wellbeing and mental health to examine whether specific courses or programs are effective in terms of promoting positive wellbeing” and then measuring whether various interventions have been effective, Cracco said.

Although Overtree expresses that he no longer has the perspective of someone who works closely with students, he states that from his “outside perspective,” he has been “pretty impressed with how the University has handled things.”

“The decisions the University is making are necessarily ones of public health, and any collective action related to public health has both expected and unexpected impacts on individuals,” Overtree said. “I think the University, schools and colleges in general need to continue being compassionate with students about financial aid and tuition, and scheduling and deadlines,” he added.

In order to mitigate stress on campus, Ovetree highlighted the importance of having access to mental health resources and other services.

“Investing and making sure that mental health care on campus also has good connections with the community and hospital providers so that students can get the health care they need, quickly and efficiently,” Overtree said. He also emphasized continued access to housing and food for students in between semesters.

Overtree also proposed a possible solution to situations in which students may feel overwhelmed with deadlines.

“It’s possible that the University could provide some leadership for faculty in standardizing a little bit more, some of the pacing that a typical course might have,” Overtree said. “Bringing some balance with assignments and examinations happening in the course of an accelerated semester might be helpful.”

Despite its tribulations, for Campbell, this semester has proven to her the power of her own resilience.

“I feel like if I can get through this, I can get through literally anything,” she said.

It has also clarified for her the type of future that she envisions for herself.

“[The pandemic] gave me more time to think about what I actually want to do…The silver lining is, I think, once this is all over, I’m going to 100 percent make sure I’m doing something that [is not dissatisfying],” said Campbell.  “I don’t want to burn out in my career, like — if I’m burning out when I’m 20? I have a lot of years ahead of me of working and I hopefully find something that’s not going to burn me out.”

Campbell now eagerly awaits summertime and the ample amount of free time that comes with it.

“I know that when I get through it, it’s going to be like the best feeling ever. I know that this summer — I’ve said this since this fall — I think this summer is going to feel better than the end of any school year I’ve ever had.”

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected]. Saliha Bayrak can be reached at [email protected]. Talia Heisey can be reached at [email protected].