Between a rigorous academic schedule, part-time job, and extracurriculars, my high-school self often had 12+ hour days. Just thinking about it makes me overwhelmed and exhausted. This, unfortunately, is the norm for young people, especially those that are looking to go to college or who have families they help to support. It is a lot of pressure to put onto young people and having graduated the year before COVID-19 started its impact, I can only imagine how much worse it has gotten.
Burnout, which is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classifications of Diseases list, is when chronic stress is not successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and reduced efficacy. Workplace burnout has been a hot topic for years and is especially talked about as we continue to face widespread labor shortages that are impacting healthcare workers, behavioral health providers, and educators. Though the WHO cautions not to apply burnout to other areas of life, as it is an occupational phenomenon, they fail to realize that youth can experience unofficial occupational roles.
These roles have aspects of, at minimum, part-time occupation. The average American student spends about seven hours in school, which is just shy of a full-time workday. Only an extra hour spent traveling, doing homework, or studying makes being a student a full-time job, and it is often more than that. Extracurriculars alone can add eight hours to a student’s week, and socializing and family demands add even more. Students have long days, lots of stress, loads of pressure, and few breaks. It’s no wonder that these students are affected by burnout. Those that learn and think differently are even more susceptible to burnout and burnout in young athletes is also a risk factor.
With all the uncertainty throughout the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, motivation was low. I remember in the fall of 2022 I barely got ready for my second year of college. I did not want to fully commit myself to something that could be taken away from me as it was the semester before. Beyond the fear of having to go back into a full lockdown, I also knew the year was not going to be anything like the college experience everyone talks about. Online schooling, frequent testing, and following the ever-changing safety guidelines all contributed to my burnout. Yet, I know I did not have it bad.
A survey of online learning experiences found that nearly 3 in 4 college students felt their learning was impacted due to low engagement. I would agree that engaging in virtual classes was a challenge, however, for many, it was not just the style of learning that caused academic disengagement. Changes in life circumstances were said to be one of the greatest reasons for students not engaging in distance learning. Students were dealing with grief, illness, or economic hardships, including having to work during the virtual school day, among other stressors.
When Burnout Persists, Other Concerns Arise
Many students faced serious signs of burnout. As a result, we saw students wanting to stop school and get a GED and showing concerning signs of depression. In the following semester (Fall 2020) nationwide rates of college enrollment dropped. Although Virginia’s overall higher education enrollment was stable, new student enrollment decreased. Unsurprisingly, the impact was worse for community colleges and Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) considering lockdowns disproportionally affected low-income students and Black children were more likely to have lost a caregiver to the pandemic.
Tackling Burnout Can Help Prevent Other Mental Health Crises
Burnout is certainly not at the top of the list for reasons young people struggle with depression or stop pursuing higher education, however, tackling it can help prevent those outcomes. Catching signs of youth burnout early can allow adults to help these individuals engage in routines and other preventative measures. In addition, there are many stressors that adults can work on limiting or managing better. This is especially so for students that have additional hardships and stressors. Students with learning disabilities, students from low-income families, and students of color are all at higher risk for burnout. Policies aimed at alleviating these stressors can tackle symptoms of burnout early on. If burnout is inevitable, it is necessary to integrate peer support and other forms of behavioral health resources to assist youth through the symptoms.
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