Student mental health vs. limited teaching days: the fall reading break debate

SFU needs to invest more time and effort into dialogue about what’s best for students and educating them on their options

Reading break is an enjoyable, once-a-year treat . . . emphasis on once-a-year. As a freshman, I was confused about why we didn’t have reading break during the fall semester, and no one seemed to have a solid answer for me.

Many universities and colleges around Canada have a fall term reading break. But SFU seems to face various obstacles in instituting one. There are pros and cons to both sides of the debate — fall reading break or no fall reading break — so there’s no clear silver-bullet solution for the question of which would be better for student life in the long run.

The best way for SFU to find an answer is education and open dialogue. Get in contact with the student body and offer the possibility of an additional break, but explain what it could cost. Go over the benefits and drawbacks of a fall reading break so that SFU’s student body can decide for themselves.

Many universities and colleges around Canada have a fall term reading break. University of Alberta (U of A) instituted theirs in 2015, in an effort to promote mental wellness and academic success. York University has been doing a fall reading break since 2009. St. Thomas University recently announced it would be implementing a fall reading break in the 2018–19 fall semester. In Ontario, it is reported that 14 out of 20 universities have some sort of break in the fall semester for students.

Administrators at these institutions boast about the additional break, saying it allows students to take time off to attend to their mental health, lower stress levels, and do what they choose with the free time, whether it be visiting with family, working, or studying. At U of A, the fall reading break proposal received unanimous support from the Student Council and the General Faculties Council. Students’ Union president Petros Kusmu cites high numbers of visits to the mental health centre at the university as a reason to support the break.

So, why isn’t SFU getting on board? Despite reading break’s benefits, the addition of one in the fall semester brings up a multitude of scheduling, workload, and teaching issues.

The biggest constraint of all, though, is the limited amount of teaching days per semester. The teaching days taken away by a new reading break would have to be made up elsewhere.

One option is to start the semester earlier, decreasing the summer holiday by a few days. However, this could interfere with orientation activities welcoming new students, and force some non-local students to pay for an extra month of rent if the semester were to begin before September 1.

Another option is to lengthen the term a few days, shortening the exam period or the winter holiday, but this also has some downfalls. Students are not likely to want a shorter holiday, and a shorter exam period means a more compressed and stressful exam schedule.

Every possible option has its caveats. With that in mind, is an additional reading break the best way to promote mental health and decrease stress among the student body? Is it really going to make a drastic difference?

Some students don’t find reading break relaxing. An article in The Whig focusing on students at Queen’s University describes how reading break can actually have the opposite effect: “Before and after their reading week, students are met with many assignments and midterms to prepare for. These midterms often pile up and make it difficult for students to relax on their time off. Apart from the midterms . . . they often spend it travelling back home or going on vacations with their friends and family.”

I found myself relating to their experiences. It’s impossible to just relax and enjoy time with family and friends when I constantly feel like I should be studying for my three midterms right after the break.

At the beginning of reading break, I told myself I was going to spend time doing things I don’t do often enough during the semester, like self-care, reading books I like, reconnecting with old friends, spending time with family, etc. In reality, I studied for upwards of five hours a day, plus regular weekly readings, assignments, and work commitments, and then I was too tired and brain-empty to do much else. Reading break didn’t serve as a “mental health break” or a solution to the stress I was feeling, since professors packed on so much work.

It seems the main point the concept of an additional reading break revolves around has become “Sorry that school is so stressful and crippling your mental health; here’s an additional week off to make up for that.” What if, instead, SFU worked to fix the root of the problem? Meaning: why is student stress so ungodly and what can SFU do to help before it reaches a boiling, overwhelming point?

Universities and colleges around the world have tested various methods for reducing student stress, including fun events featuring free massages, renting bouncy castles, care package hand-outs, yoga and meditation services, available drop-in counselling, and much more. Meanwhile, some post-secondary students are calling for institutional reform: lowering tuition costs, lowering housing costs, increasing quiet hours in residence, reducing weekly readings, and even abolishing exam-style testing all together.

There is no one solution to student stress, but if SFU wants to gain a reputation as a caring and conscious university, administration needs to figure out what students really need. The best way to do this? Communicate with the students. Ask students: “What stresses you out? What can be done to help?” and go from there. Make sure they know the pros and cons of whatever solutions get proposed.

Now excuse me, I need to go stress-study for my midterms.