Paddling through the tidal wave


 Picture a duck, gliding on the crystal blue waters of a pond. To the human eye, this image is calm, serene and pleasant—or so it seems. But if you look underwater, the duck is furiously pedaling to stay afloat.

 This analogy can be translated to the all-too-familiar faces of students painting a brave smile amidst the chaos of finals and projects. Coined by Stanford University students, “duck syndrome” describes the phenomenon among college students to appear at ease in face of adversity. However, adopting this “fake it until you make it” mentality will only make students more vulnerable to feelings of hopelessness and loneliness.

 To begin, duck syndrome can negatively affect students mentally and academically. In high schools, we are lucky enough to have amazing support systems rooting for us throughout the year. However, in college, it may be rather daunting to ask for help from a close friend, family member or school faculty member when your peers appear to be thriving and you are expected to do the same. While your classmates earn A’s on exams and score internships at reputable companies, you are struggling to do seemingly simple tasks. In believing that you are alone in confronting your social and academic challenges, your sense of security and confidence plummet, which may result in depression, anxiety and suicide.

 However, the masked reality is that many students are in the same rocky boat as you. Behind the scenes, high school and college students with the near-perfect grades and an impressive list of achievements are often paddling frantically to maintain their high-achieving image, constantly embroiled in their own worries and insecurities just like their classmates.

 All too often, students feel pressured to shove down their academic and personal struggles, quietly risking their mental health, for the sake of conforming with their carefree classmates in the tranquil pond that is their school. But at what cost? According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers, one in four college students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder, and one in five students attempted suicide. In fact, suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students and the third most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults between the ages of 10 to 24.

 As modern society glorifies workaholism and shames “laziness” among students, we have increasingly undermined the importance of the self-care and instilled shame in those who seek help. Nonetheless, as shown through the terrifying statistics of student suicide across the nation, the threat of “duck syndrome” should not be underestimated. Especially in today’s hyper-competitive atmosphere in high schools and universities, sleeping for more than six hours has become an unspoken disgrace among students. Assuming that “others have it worst,” fewer students are willing to seek help when they feel overwhelmed. In fact, a 2008 study conducted by the American Foundation for Suicidal Screening Project at Emory University discovered that only 16% of students with suicidal thoughts and 14% of students with depression were receiving treatment. Without open discussion between students about their academic stress and challenges, people may misjudge their own mental well-being and ask for help when the damage is already done.

 By no means am we saying that students should not work hard. Just as ducks can swim long distances by persistently paddling across the choppy waters, we students must be motivated to paddle consistently in order to find success at the other side of the pond. Nevertheless, we must find a healthy balance between paddling too much and too little. It is important to try our very best in every grueling situation we encounter while still voicing our struggles to those around us. With this balance, we can create our own sense of identity and learn more about ourselves in the process.

 In retrospect, the pristine images that students conjure for the public eye are oftentimes mere illusions to the despair boiling beneath the surface. Though it is tempting and comforting to retain your mask of perfection, battling duck syndrome starts with you. Unveil your true, vulnerable self in the company of caring friends and family members, and you may grow stronger, wiser and happier. As Dory from Finding Nemo says, “just keep swimming.” Or in the case of duck syndrome, just keep paddling.


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