The impact of stress on our physical well-being is discussed in ancient Jewish sources. Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and doctor, recognised the importance of maintaining the equilibrium of one’s emotional activities and he knew that chronic anxiety eventually harms one’s body. Maimonides promotes a holistic approach to physical and mental well-being through exercise, healthy diet, sufficient sleep and appreciation of nature and music as ways of keeping anxiety at bay.
Sadly, issues surrounding mental health are on the increase across society, but they are especially acute now, during the university exam season. In contrast to my Oxford experience in the 80s, students feel huge pressure to perform. Most leave university with considerable debt, face huge competition for good jobs and struggle to get on to the housing ladder. And stress can impact not just on the student but on his or her family, friends and housemates.
Stress touches everyone and apparently, the problem is growing. In 2015 alone, more than 17 million working days were lost due to stress, costing the UK economy some £2.4 billion, adding to the huge impact on the individuals affected. All of us get stressed at times – at work, when handling complex family dynamics, around our health and in our relationships. Although I’ve been a community rabbi for 20 years, I still feel stressed at key moments in the calendar, and I find it works best if I pretend that there aren’t millions of people listening to me as I step into the studio for my regular live broadcasts on the Radio 2 Chris Evans show.
The central message is that students, and indeed anyone suffering from or seeking to avoid the effects of stress, need to care for themselves. Eating healthily, sleeping regularly, and devoting time to relaxation and exercise, while studying hard the rest of the time fits the Maimonidean paradigm, but is one that some students may find hard to achieve. Fortunately, there are support systems on campus to help students though this stressful period.
In my capacity as CEO of University Jewish Chaplaincy, the organisation that deploys residential rabbinic couples on campuses across the UK to provide a ‘home-away-from-home’ for Jewish students, I recognise how important it is to train our chaplains to identify stress and other signs of mental ill-health. They know when a cup of tea and a chat is all that is needed, but they are also proficient at referring a struggling student when a more significant intervention is appropriate. I also am proud that our chaplains around the country are proactively engaged in helping students beat stress. All over the country, chaplains provide or support Friday night dinners (in Newcastle, our chaplain forbids talk about university and exams at his table), in Manchester, the chaplain hands out sushi at the revision centre. In Liverpool, it’s pizza to help students concentrate on their studies; in Cambridge students can run with the rabbi; and in Oxford, they can choose between nature walks and crafts. Actually, support is always at hand – where a student feels isolated, he or she can always stay in touch with a chaplain via email or social media.
To add to the stress for observant Jewish students, there are often university exams on Shavuot, which always falls inconveniently and this year is mid-week. Some universities are good at avoiding exam clashes altogether, whereas others offer incarceration arrangements when a conflict is unavoidable. Regrettably, there are some universities who are less than co-operative when a student reports a clash, exacerbating students’ anxiety, sometimes until the last moment before the exam. In some regions, this adds hugely to the chaplain’s workload, especially as some of them are students themselves! I’ve become involved directly this year as I’ll have two incommunicado medical students staying at my house for part of the festival. The next morning I’ll deliver them to the university authorities so they can take their exams a day late.
The good news is that by late June it will be mostly over, although some students will then feel the pressure created by dissertation deadlines! Wishing all students a low-stress and successful exam season.