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Disability & Inclusion Edition

‘There is a huge crisis happening in STEM classes’

Mental health in STEM: Getting to the root of the problem

  • Updated
  • 7
  • 3 min to read
stem mental health

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of suicidal ideation.

Editor’s note: Sources interviewed in this article chose to use pseudonyms out of fear of repercussions.

It’s a tale as old as UW itself: hard classes create stress, which can inflict lasting damage on students’ mental health. But for many students in UW STEM classes, the stress that comes with the university’s most notorious majors is snowballing into something much more insidious — sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation.

The environment that pushes students to this point begins with what many view as an unmanageable workload: a seemingly never-ending list of assignments, readings, and labs, which can feel, in the end, only tangentially applicable to the culminating test.

“Some people go to sleep at 3 a.m. and they wake up the next day at 6 a.m.,” Ali, an undeclared second-year currently taking BIO 220 and organic chemistry, said. “Three hours of sleep just because there’s so much to do. Professors say ‘Do the reading,’ and it’s a 100-page reading, and then you go to the lecture and they teach you something that’s not in the textbook.”

For all this work, students find it difficult to ask for extensions. The culture in STEM classes suggests to students that getting more time during a particularly hard week would be unlikely at best and impossible at worst.

Then, of course, there are the exams themselves, frequently cited as one of the most stress-inducing aspects of an already stressful body of classes. The difficulty of these exams begets its own set of mental health struggles.

“I feel like the STEM system at UW has made all STEM majors have really bad test anxiety,” Hannah, a third-year studying physiology, said. “In high school, I was like ‘Oh, it’s test day? Give it to me. Let me take it. I’m not stressed at all.’ But I get to college and I shake on my way to classes, and I shake in my seat, heart rate elevated the entire time. As I’m taking my test, I’m thinking ‘Your whole career is lined up on this freaking test.’”

The difficulty of exams, which Ali described as “outrageous,” is not always due to inherently difficult concepts. The tests can be geared toward memorization, include content not covered thoroughly enough in class, or test students on obscure keywords rather than focusing on concept mastery.

How does a stressful environment like this turn into a mental health crisis?

The reported lack of sleep, lack of support, competitive environment, and difficult content adds up, but at least a part of the answer may lie in the students who gravitate toward these classes.

“I know the problem that I had specifically was that all my life I was a 4.0 student,” Dan, a second-year studying aerospace engineering, explained. “Perfect grades, perfect everything. Getting into UW and seeing my grades just plummet when I’d set this mandate for myself — being the best student because that’s what I’ve been all my life — and then getting here and just getting beat down to the bottom with seemingly no remorse took a toll.”

Upon finding themselves in classes not designed for students to excel — Hannah noted that professors often explicitly mention and expect test averages around 60% to dominate their classes — students who thrived in high school found themselves facing an identity crisis. High expectations for themselves and for the future make inevitable failures in STEM classes all the more devastating.

There’s a certain pressure to look collected and in control in front of fellow students, so struggling STEM students often turn to online spaces for support. It’s in these online spaces that the gravity of the situation often becomes apparent.

“There have been multiple sites online and class Discords that have mentioned suicide, depression, and mental health lowering due to the lack of help people receive from these classes,” Ali said. “There is a huge crisis happening in STEM classes.”

Luckily, these online spaces have just as much inter-student support as they do commiseration. It makes it clear, though, that the culture around mental health in UW’s STEM classes is characterized by silence, stoicism, and a “just get through it” mentality.

“It all piles together,” Hannah said. “All the exams at the same time — it’s just death to your brain. I’m in year three and I focus all of my time on studying … I study every single day and just push the thoughts back, push them down. Sometimes it all comes out in one spree, but I just push it down, and eventually the quarter ends and I can breathe for a week. Then it’s back to the same stuff.”

The UW Counseling Center offers professional mental health services, and the crisis hotline can be reached at 1-866-775-0608.

Reach reporter Ariana Sutherland at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @aristhrlnd.

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(7) comments

Thedailysupporter

I think we are all failing to understand the purpose of this article. It’s not about making classes easier, the fact that STEM students have pre-existing mental health issues, or that professors should make the class easier. It’s the fact that STEM is causing this via different domains. Why can’t we value the pure passion of learning a topic, rather depend on harsh curves and grades? Why can’t we develop an intrinsic passion about a topic that we love such as biology? It’s because we are testing the wrong content and placing too much of a heavy emphasis on impossible exams. The solution to the problem is very complex. Also, when a student attends UW I would like to argue that they don’t know that they signed up for such a big struggle and this is not such a pertinent issue at other colleges.

drew2seattle

I am a Computer Science major at UW and it is rough out here. The entire culture is built around working all day and night. I don't see my friends or family much outside of quarterly breaks. I have observed that UW faculty are actively refusing to address how this "hustle culture" impacts first generation students, low income students, students with disabilities, and perpetuates existing inequities in STEM. Even when a room full of students questioned professors about the amount of homework given, they were met with gaslighting, derision, and comments of "its just really hard".

It doesn't have to be really hard. Creating content that is intentionally difficult is just another form of gatekeeping academia, allowing for a college culture of depression, and discouraging students from pursuing experiential learning opportunities.

SushiDeliveryGuy

Mental health is important nowadays, but it's not like students didn't know what they signed up for.

vegSpam23

So you're saying that students with mental health problems shouldn't sign up for STEM classes? Isn't that the same kind of ableist/classist academic gatekeeping that the OP was describing?

SushiDeliveryGuy

Students with mental health problems should still sign up STEM classes.

Making classes easier to address mental health issues won't solve the problem. In a curved class, higher medians are arguably more stressful. Professors want to help students, but they should not sacrifice academic rigor. The number of mental health issues continues to grow despite the amount of resources available to students. Anxiety and depression are not restricted to our college campus. It is more of a wider generational, societal issue.

Thedailysupporter

Most students knew that UW was rigorous but not this cutthroat. I did not know before signing up for UW, and as someone who has taken these classes, it’s VERY hard to get help and for the first 4 weeks of my bio 220 class the teaching staff didn’t even help us. There are UTA sessions that are practically useless.

Thedailysupporter

1000% agree. What about the intrinsic passion for a subject that we completely disregard.

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