By Andrea MacLean
Wedged between his bed and the wall, Dan Molnar was twitching and shaking from a stress-induced seizure.
The first-year architecture student had gone three days without sleep. He had projects due, textbooks to read, exams to study for and not enough hours in a day. With final exams fast approaching, the demands were too much for his mind and body to handle.
When the weekend arrived, he crashed. He woke up after nearly 17 hours. He needed to make a pot of coffee and get back to work. Molnar stretched and put his hands against the bedroom wall. His girlfriend watched as he suddenly blacked out, slid down the wall, knocked a painting down and convulsed.
When he came to, his girlfriend wanted to take him to the hospital.
“No,” he said. “We need to finish our project.”
Molnar, now in third year, isn’t alone. More than ever, students are faced with unrealistic demands and many of them are burning out. The Ryerson Counselling Centre has three-week waiting times for students looking for a place to vent their frustrations and seek help for stress management. According to the Canadian Campus Survey, 30 per cent of undergraduates experience psychological distress. But for many, there’s no choice but to tough it out.
Excessive stress is a common complaint at the Ryerson Health Centre, says Dr. Su Ting Teo, a physician and the centre’s acting coordinator. Although seizures like Molnar’s are rare occurrences, she says stress-related illnesses such as fatigue and anxiety are frequent on campus. “It’s definitely an issue for everybody who walks in the door… We see a lot of people who have a lot of stress,” she says. “We see a lot of people who are overwhelmed by that stress to the point that they’re not functioning well.”
Mandy Roberts-Douma, health education coordinator at the university health centre at Edmonton’s University of Alberta, says competing interests — work, friends and school — are making it tougher for students to get by.
“There is a growing concern that there is more stress on students today than there ever has been,” she says. “They’re coming to university and finding that there aren’t that many supports.”
However, Provost and VP Academic Alan Shepard says the programs are designed to prepare students for real life. The stress is just part of the job, he said, and students should get used to it. He suggests students seek counselling if they feel they are burning out.
Heather Lane Vetere, Vice Provost Students, is more sympathetic. She suggests students approach their faculty member in the course or bring any issues with the program requirements to the attention of the chair or the associate dean.
Teo says that getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to avoid burnout. But to meet the demands of their programs, sleep is something many students have had to learn to live without.
Aerospace engineering masters student Nik Trutiak had five exams in five days during his second year as an undergraduate. “I think we were spending more time writing exams per day than we were sleeping. An exam is three hours long and we would do two in a day and would barely sleep even six hours… It was horrible.”
It’s nearly midnight on a Friday night. Twenty-five architecture students are still in the computer lab working, papers and binders spread out around them. One student pours coffee out of his thermos.
The wrappers of tonight’s Z-teca burritos are tossed next to some students’ workstations. When it comes to food, convenience is key. Molnar has had six of these burritos in the past two weeks.
He doesn’t expect to be knocking off work until 3 a.m. Some students won’t leave at all. Many of them have slept in the lab, in the hallway and on desks in the architecture building. Some students claim to have slept in the building more than 30 nights in the past three years.
Ryan Donnelly, a third-year architecture student keeps two or three changes of clothes and essential toiletries in his locker. But he’s had to resort to buying clothes from H&M when he’s gone for weeks without going home.
Molnar takes caffeine pills called Wake Ups that help him stay awake. But even these didn’t keep him from falling asleep in the middle of a midterm last month.
“I’d say I’ve gotten four to five hours every day for the past week and that’s on the high side.”
He also says profs in his faculty are less than sympathetic.
“There’s never a chance that we could complain to the profs ‘cause they’ll just laugh,” he says. “They’re under the impression that if they don’t pile us full of work, that we’re not going to keep on track.”
Trutiak, however, says he’s never had difficulty talking to his profs.
“Ryerson’s good because you can approach your professors, especially in the engineering department,” he says. “The professors understand cause they’ve been where you’ve been.”
It’s not easy for Molnar, but he tries not to let it get to him.
“I just try not to let it go there,” he says. “I try to stay relaxed about it. It’s building the concept in your head that it’s just school and you have to make it out somehow at the end of it and do the best you can. That’s all you can do.”