Avoiding the crushing consequences of studying too hard

As September and the fall semester begins, I remember the rush I had as a university student caught up in the swirl of energy of my fellow students and myself, more than twenty years ago now. A smile lights up my face as I recall, and then I think of a dark joke that my brother taught me his freshman year of MIT.  A professor stands in front of a window after leading a tour around the campus, and he asks the students, “Do you know why MIT’s colors are gray and red?” All the freshmen students shake their heads. Just then, outside of the window, everybody sees a body falling to the cement below. “That’s why.” says the professor.

MIT has a higher suicide rate than the national average, but the joke reflects an underlying truth about campus life all over the United States. According to Collegedegreesearch.net, there are about 1,100 suicides on campuses around the USA each year, and, shockingly, six percent of all undergraduates have seriously considered suicide.  Why is contemplating suicide so common among university students these days? A lot of stress, abuse of drugs and alcohol, as well as underlying clinical depression and anxiety are risk factors. Even if you are a learning machine, my advice is to take time to smell those roses because too much stress will take down even an ubermensch gifted student.

The Statistics

One in four Americans suffer from a serious mental illness during their lifetimes, most often depression or anxiety. Serious mental issues can be triggered by the stress of university or years of workaholism. It is no coincidence that depression is soon to become the number one cause of long term death and disability worldwide by 2020, according to the World Health Organization.

Reading and Mental Illness

University students read a lot. Problem? Maybe. Even high-achieving readers are predisposed to bouts of melancholia, according to medical history. Before the 19th century doctors thought that the mere act of reading books could cause mental instability. See: A Text-book on mental diseases By Theodore H. Kellogg. Also, see Wikipedia’s article on the History of Depression: “Since Aristotle, melancholia had been associated with men of learning and intellectual brilliance, a hazard of contemplation and creativity.”

According to the Census of 1890 about one percent of one percent of the population or one in ten thousand people in all of the United States had a hospitalization for depression. Today approximately one in seven people in the US suffers from clinical depression and the rate keeps going up. In 1890 few people had the opportunity to educate themselves beyond a basic level of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today, one in four people in the US is a college graduate.  As rates of college graduation go up year to year, so does the figure of people becoming clinically depressed.  The question becomes, what can be done to stay healthy?

Protection: Omega-3 Fish Oil and the Prevention of Clinical Depression

Disclaimer: I worked as a medical library chief  at the leading psychiatric hospital in the United States, New York State Psychiatric Institute/ Columbia Psychiatry, so I have a bad habit of quoting MEDLINE to prove points. From the journal Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, Epub 2014 Mar 18.: there is a journal article titled “Omega-3 fatty acids and depression: scientific evidence and biological mechanisms” wherein the abstract states that “..several epidemiological studies reported a significant inverse correlation between intake of oily fish and depression or bipolar disorders.”   Free full text of the article is available to anyone who wishes to explore the article in more depth at pubmed.gov .

Back when I was an undergraduate, we did not know as much as we do today about the science behind a healthy brain and body, so we can do much more today than before to keep our minds and bodies healthy. Paradoxically, college students are less fit and more prone to suicide than ever before. According to Collegedegreesearch.net suicide rates for our youth are three times what they were back in the 1950’s, and diabetes rates are going through the roof among the Internet Generation.

If you feel suicidal please Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Editor’s Note: William Jiang, MLS is the Author of 63 books, including the bestselling books Guide to Natural Mental Health , 3rd ed and his critically-acclaimed autobiography A Schizophrenic Will: A Story of Madness, A Story of Hope. You can see a selection of his books about mental and physical health nicely laid out on his blog at www. mentalhealthbooks.net . He also is editor-in-chief of Mental Health Books Review