Scoring under stress

07 Feb 2020

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FROM nowhere to nowhere. You know the feeling, right? People dream, set targets, create pressures and crumble. “Cleared first proff. Thank God.” Thus read the Facebook status in August 2018 of Yousaf Pirkani, a student of Bolan University of Medical and Health Sciences, who shared his happiness on clearing the first professional of MBBS. With a dream to become a doctor, he had enrolled in the MBBS programme in 2015. His social media status indicating this life event was showered with congratulations and warm wishes for his bright future. Just around six months later, in February 2019, Yousaf took his own life after he failed in an exam. Stress of the studies got the better of him.

Medical education is perceived as being stressful and medical schools and colleges are often recognised as having stressful environment that exert negative pressure on the academic performance, physical health, and psychological well-being of the students. A study published in the Journal of Pakistan Medical Association (JPMA) reveals that approximately 70 per cent of the total 142 medical students interviewed suffered from anxiety and depression. Of them, most of the students – 59 per cent, to be precise – were females.

Yousaf Pirkani was one of the hundreds of students who suffer from stress, anxiety and depression due to academic pressure. Another student, Safiullah Khan Jamali, who was pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at the Institute of Engineering and Fertilizer Research, fell prey to the same pressure and shot himself in October 2018 after he was expelled.

Academic stress refers to the state of mental distress which arises due to the fear of failure in academics and inability of students to cope up with the challenges. It obstructs a student’s ability to focus and function effectively and decreases their efficiency and productivity. High level of academic stress can be alarming, leading to various mental health problems.

An overly demanding educational landscape leads to academic stress which obstructs students’ ability to focus and function effectively and decreases their efficiency and productivity.

Muhammad Daniyal, a mechanical engineering graduate of NED University, defines five reasons that lead to academic stress. He elaborates them as pressure of expectations from parents; peer pressure; pressure to be in the limelight and gain the attention of friends and teachers; pressure from institution in terms of curriculum and time management; and vague grading criteria that alters often, affecting students’ grades.

Daniyal believes the pressure to become a doctor or engineer is immense. “There should be a free career counselling session for students and their parents where students are advised a field of study based on their interests and competencies and both parents and students should be guided why it would be the best bet for them,” he advises.

Asim Hasan, 22, was threatened by his professor for failing him if he launched a complaint against him or made any effort to change him as the advisor of automotive society. “Although I knew he could not do that, the thought of being failed was so dreadful that I didn’t take any step,” he recalls.

Narmeen Khan, a student of O Levels, was not only affected mentally but also emotionally when she realised that she had lost many of her friends by missing their important calls, events and cancelling every plan her friends made to hang out due to her studies. “I was left alone most of the time; my only company was my daunting course books,” she says.

The CAIE exams altered her perception of the education system practised in Pakistan. “The pressure crushed me and my fellows as students. We felt as if we were perpetually made to stand on the edge of a soaring cliff, peering down into a bottomless, black void. My health rapidly deteriorated as my CAIE exams neared. I started to lose sleep. I would lie awake at night, worrying whether I would get straight A grades or not.”

No matter how many hours Narmeen would study, she never felt as if she had done enough. “I smashed all barriers between me and straight A grades. But at what cost? My health? My sanity?” she wonders. Narmeen believes hundreds of students are victims of depression because of our flawed education system. “Numerous students take their lives due to bad grades and unrealistic pressure to make their parents and teachers proud. Is that what the world wants? Damaged, overburdened children? Doesn’t our health matter? I believe it matters the most,” she ponders.

Abeeha Jalal Zaidi, an engineer currently working in a government organisation, has always been a bright student but not as bright to bag a gold medal. “It’s a myth when people say CGPA doesn’t matter. It does. When top-notch companies come at the year-end to the university for recruitment, they only hire position holders and those with CGPA higher than 3.8. Even if you have a good CGPA of 3.6, you are made to feel worthless. This shatters confidence and you start doubting yourself,” she says.

Abeeha discusses how a friend of her was being bullied by other students when he had a year-back due to his low grades. “He started to avoid our gatherings due to this bullying.”

Saad Lakhani, a student of electrical engineering, never dreamt himself to be an engineer because he felt his abilities were not best suited to the degree despite being an outstanding student. “My parents believe that ‘real degrees’ can only be attained by studying medicine, engineering or business administration. So I was pressurised to get enrolled in an engineering degree.” Despite trying, Saad was unable to convince his parents to let him opt for a degree in social sciences.

Academic stress can also be caused by financial burden of education and related expenses. When Sidra Paracha, 19, was studying hard for her O Levels, she suffered a lot. Her parents told her clearly she needs to bag a cent per cent scholarship for A Levels if she wants to study A Levels in the future or else she would have to switch to the intermediate system.

“Attaining a cent per cent scholarship means you have to grab high grades in your O Levels. The pressure to get a scholarship was nerve-wracking and it got worse due to the absence of teachers for four courses at my school.”

To help herself with studies, Sidra started taking tuitions where she was given 200 questions per subject to be solved in two days as homework. “The CAIEs were approaching; I lost my appetite and lost eight kilogrammes in one month. I started having migraines daily and suffered from insomnia.”

Sidra lost her focus on studies as a result. She remembers times when she used to stare at the board to understand the simplest equation written on it. She did manage to get a scholarship for her A Level though. She studied without any pressure in her A Levels and still cleared it with flying colours.

Somaiyah Hafeez, 20, a first year student of BS Physics, had been battling with mental health issues since long and considered academics a great distraction until she entered the phase of higher studies. “The mark of everything is the grades you get. I used to worry about how my mental health will be impacted if all the hard work I have put in does not translate into good grades. The way we are judged by institutions on the basis of grades has integrated into our minds. I had insomnia because of it and gave my paper with no sleep.”

Somaiyah says her mental health was severely affected by the self-imposed pressure she has put on herself to get good grades. And she is still bothered by her mental health while giving exams in university now.

Another aspect that adds to academic stress among female engineering students is the experience of being discriminated by teachers for studying in a male-dominated field. “Since we were studying mechanical engineering, which is considered a male-dominated field, our teachers used to ignore us for industry trips and workshops and used to favour our male class-fellows. This was very disheartening,” says Saima Sanober.

Ariba Irfan, currently studying at a management university in Lahore, believes that academic pressure is immense but it can be dealt with if students learn to manage it. “Yes, I used to get tense about academics, but when I work hard and take things side by side, it is easy to balance things out while attaining good grades.”

In this modern competitive era when students go through serious stressful situations through the course of their academic career and youthful pursuits, many universities do not have mental health counsellors. At places that do offer mental health counselling, either the student-counsellor ratio is not good enough or the counselling sessions are not free.

Studies suggest academic stress put negative impact on the mental health of students regardless of the age and gender. A sound mind, as the saying goes, resides in a sound body, and students must be involved in physical and extracurricular relaxing activities to reduce their stress levels.

It is high time parents stopped overburdening their children with their own high expectations. Likewise, the universities should create a stress-free environment for students where they can excel at their own pace. On their part, the students need to understand that keeping a healthy balance is a basic life skill they need to master for their bright future.