Burnout or Something More? A Study of Burnout in Pitt Students and How Pitt Treats Mental Health

Finals season is upon us. Students can be seen bustling from building to building through the blustery April weather, going from class to class. One individual steps out of their 4 p.m. physics class, their eyelids drooping over their bloodshot eyes. They shuffle through their bag for their notebook as they head toward the library to study for their upcoming final. This is their second day straight without sleep, and they have forgotten dinner again. 

As we head into the most stressful point of the semester, so many things can be overlooked, especially mental health. Hobbies, physical activity, and other aspects that contribute to mental wellness are pushed to the side as students focus intensely on academics.

As a result of this ongoing, ever-increasing amount of work that is put on students, it’s almost inevitable that stress evolves into burnout. However, since everyone experiences life differently, how can we pinpoint what burnout truly is?

To try and answer this question, several University of Pittsburgh students shared what their experience with burnout was like. Not surprisingly, their experiences were further supported by outside research and surveys.

When asked to rank their level of burnout on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the most burnt out, several students smiled and laughed nervously. Most students ranked their level over 5 with some students even going to 10. Their symptoms varied widely, but all the students I spoke with reported some form of harm or deterioration to their wellbeing.

Second-year psychology student Naomi said she can tell she is burnt out because of her motivation to do work. She completes it to “get it over with,” rather than because she actually wants to. She “doesn’t want to have to deal with it.”

First-year political science student Kelsey reported similar symptoms, with low motivation and high procrastination levels as the semester reaches its climax. Many students also reported that they do not have time to take care of themselves or their wellbeing, such as second-year Emergency Medicine student Adam claiming that his “sleep schedule is out of sync.” (To respect their privacy, all student names were kept anonymous.)

Psychology Today defines “burnout” as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” However, burnout is not the same as being overworked; symptoms characteristic of burnout include “physical and mental exhaustion, a sense of dread about work, and frequent feelings of cynicism, depression, anger, or irritability.”

Burnout is something that affects a variety of individuals, regardless of their situation. Parents and couples are not left out of the fray, but statistically, students are those who are most affected.

In fact, a 2021 survey conducted by Ohio State University stated that the amount of college students who have experienced burnout rose from 40% in August 2020 to a concerning 71% in April 2021. Psychology Today also found that, if ignored for long enough, burnout can lead to a “mountain of mental and physical health problems…including headaches, fatigue, heartburn, and other gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as increased potential for alcohol, drug, or food misuse.”

The potential for more serious problems rears its ugly head with prolonged bouts of burnout. According to the same 2021 survey, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse levels have also increased from 2020 to 2021, albeit in smaller intervals: 

Students who screened positive for anxiety rose from 39% to around 43%

Students who screened positive for depression rose from 24% to 28%

Eating unhealthily as a coping mechanism rose from 25% to 29%

Use of alcohol rose from 15.5% to 18%

Use of tobacco/vaping rose from 6% to 8%

Physical activity dropped from 35% to 28%

Another question still stands: how do we deal with burnout and prevent bigger issues from occurring? From interviews with students, it seems that self-care is essential.

All the students I spoke with reported physical activity and exercise as a favorite method of self-care. With the days getting warmer, spending time outside is a de-stressor that is becoming more available; one can see hundreds of students relaxing on the lawns and in the parks, as well as studying and working in the Schenley Quad and other public spaces.

Other students reported organization as an important tool to lower stress. Things such as making a schedule, making a to-do list, and working in small segments help students to manage their time and make time for taking care of themselves. Along with self-care, experts state that strengthened coping skills can help students fight against severe burnout and mental illness.

For Bernadette Melnyk, chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State, she says that “it is crucial that we arm students with the resilience, cognitive-behavioral skills and coping skills that we know are protective against mental health disorders.”

In response to this survey, Ohio State University and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are using the data from the survey to create and integrate programs and resources into the curriculum to help students prioritize their mental health.

“Students are often overloaded with their regular coursework,” Melnyk said. “So when they’re offered these wonderful programs they sometimes just see them as one more thing to do…by making them part of their classes and campus life and ensuring students know exactly where to go for help as they need it, we can really impact a lot more lives and give these students skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

How does the University of Pittsburgh shape up when it comes to advanced mental health resources? As a student who has been through the University Counseling Center on multiple occasions, my experiences with the Center have admittedly been mediocre.

The experiences with counselors are very hit-or-miss; for example, one counselor I had seen was very open-minded and available whenever necessary, but another counselor eventually ended sessions with me and told me to seek other resources.

The counseling experience also takes a lot of time, with little reward.

The most one can get is a single session either weekly or biweekly. There seems to be little variety when it comes to availability, especially for students who may be struggling with more serious issues. Even if one is referred to off campus resources, the resources are often overbooked or not flexible with students’ schedules. Overall, the UCC seems resourceful on the surface, but in reality is seemingly ill-prepared for students who may be suffering from more serious issues.

While I would like to recommend the UCC as a resource, I believe it shouldn’t be one’s primary resource. There are a plethora of mental health-based organizations on campus that are run by faculty and students alike, such as Active Minds and the National Alliance on Mental Illness at Pitt (NAMI).

Additionally, there exists plenty of off-campus resources in Oakland and in Pittsburgh, as well as tele-therapy services. The more resources at your disposal, the better. You can also find counseling resources online based on location, specific issues, and healthcare provider. 

Burnout seems to be a universal experience among college students — something which is both comforting and somewhat concerning. However, it is important to remember to prioritize health and wellness, and that you’re not alone. There are local and virtual resources that can help. With the right amount of self-care and resources at our fingertips, burnout and other bigger issues can be dealt with and, in some cases, even prevented. 

Featured photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com.

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