Burnout among students on the rise

  • Education
  • Sunday, 05 Apr 2020

NO doubt a necessity, the movement control order (MCO), however, could prove to be a challenge for students sitting for major exams this year, said Malaysian Mental Health Association president Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj.

Panic and over exertion may lead to burnout.

Depending on their personalities and the family support they receive, some students may find it difficult to obtain proper guidance outside a normal academic environment, he said.

It’s crucial for exam candidates to get adequate support at home.

Prof Andrew said family support is crucial.Prof Andrew said family support is crucial.

“Mimicking the usual daily routine as closely as possible can help prevent panic from setting in.

“Don’t let the holiday or weekend mood set in – wake up at the usual time and have adequate sleep, for example.”

He said even in normal circumstances, without the MCO in place, there is already a possibility of students burning out from academic pressure.

If not dealt with, the burnout can develop into major depression which can have debilitating and even fatal consequences.

“The 2017 National Mortality and Morbidity Survey showed that one in 10 adolescents in Malaysia have entertained suicidal thoughts in the preceding one year.

“It’s fair to assume that complications of burnout could have contributed to this alarming figure,” he said, adding that burnout must be differentiated from stress.

In small doses, stress is good and may improve cognitive performance.

Describing burnout as a psychological exhaustion and a complete lack of interest in things that leads to a decline in performance, he said parents and teachers usually do not believe that a child or adolescent would have suffered from burnout.

They might perceive it to be a weakness in character and expect the child to snap out of it.

“Overbearing parents, teachers or homework overload cause burnout among school children.

“At university, the causes are usually family issues, financial problems and difficulty in time management,” he said, adding that students with part-time jobs have a higher tendency to burnout.

Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad Zahari, a senior consultant psychiatrist at the University Malaya (UM) Medical Centre’s department of psychological medicine, said society perceives burnout to be a weakness when it is a mental health issue.

“A burnout is not a medical condition but it can contribute to mental and physical illness.

“If not addressed, cases of mental illness such as depression will increase.

“Among the youth, burnout is mostly related to sports or studies. People perceive low academic performance as a failure in life so students are constantly under pressure to do well which can lead to burnout.”

In severe cases, burnout can lead to suicide, he said.

More children are showing signs of burnout, said child therapist Priscilla Ho.

Having worked with youths for the past 15 years, she said children and youths who suffer from burnout are usually those who ask and expect way too much of themselves, without being pressured by others.

The majority of these children come from well-off parents and are generally enrolled in better schools. The expectations on themselves are so high that they are unachievable, she said.

Burnout, she added, could be due to an imbalance between requirements and personal resources.

Excessive demands at school, uncertain or negative future prospects, and the behaviour of educators could be among the causes.

“Some parents cause their children to burn out although they will never admit it.

“Often, they cannot deal with it when their children show signs of burnout. They think it’s an act of defiance so they deal with it by being even tougher on the kids – which only makes matters worse,” she said.

Prevention is better than cure

Parents play an important role in preventing burnout among children, said Ho.

To allow for early intervention, parents should be vigilant of tell tale signs like weight fluctuation, self-harm, constant fatigue, insomnia, lashing out at people, isolation and a sudden decline in academic achievements.

“Bed-wetting is another sign especially among the younger ones. Similar to self-harm, bed-wetting may be a cry for help.

“The child loses control of an important bodily function because he or she can no longer endure the imposition of constant and excessive controls.”

Students can prevent feeling burnout by being more organised, Ho suggested.

“Evaluate your priorities and set realistic daily goals that are achievable. Beware of adopting priorities of your peers because theirs may likely differ from yours.”

She said taking short breaks when studying and getting enough rest are crucial.

Dr Muhammad Muhsin said severe cases can lead to suicide.Dr Muhammad Muhsin said severe cases can lead to suicide.

Teens aged between 14 and 17 need up to 10 hours of sleep, while young adults up to age 25, need up to nine hours, she said.

Exercising, enjoying “me time”, taking a breather from gadgets and social media, and limiting contact with negative people, can avoid one from getting burnout.

The most important thing students can do for themselves, she said, is learning to say ‘no’.

“If you keep on saying ‘yes’ to everything, you might get burntout just by thinking about how you can accomplish so much in so little time,” she said, adding that reaching out to trusted confidants like friends and family, is helpful.

Having someone listen to you pour out your stress and worries lessens the burden and gives you peace of mind to face the daily challenges.

Echoing Ho, Dr Muhsin suggested taking up enriching activities like sports, hobbies and volunteering.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle doing activities that you find enjoyable can prevent burnout, he said.

“Time management is crucial to ensure balance. If time is limited, prioritise your tasks.

“Don’t take on multiple tasks that are beyond the capabilities and resources, and don’t procrastinate. It is stressful doing things last minute,” he said, stressing that exercise and healthy eating are vital.

A firm believer of education being a joyful process, Prof Andrew said maintaining a study schedule and being aware of one’s limitations will go a long way in preventing burnout.

“Striving for excellence does not mean being perfect or a top scorer all the time,” he said.

Prof Andrew said parents should not impose their high expectations on their children.

“Manage your expectations. Children often succumb to the parental demands for them to outperform others. This causes them to push themselves further and finally get burntout,” he said.

Road to recovery

A little understanding goes a long way to help a person who is experiencing burnout to heal, said Dr Muhsin.

“Denying one’s emotional stress due to burnout is not helpful. Allow the student to describe their thoughts and feelings to understand the emotional state he or she is in.

“Do not be judgemental or put blame on them. Instead, approach the problem from individual standpoints, not from our own feelings.”

Acknowledging the issue, said Ho, is a crucial part of overcoming burnout.

Ignoring the problem makes things worse.

Ho said parents must not be in denial.Ho said parents must not be in denial.

“Getting over burnout could take weeks, months, or even years. To begin the healing process, one must seek professional help once the mind and body start sending signals,” she said, adding that friends, family and teachers may also be enlisted to lend a helping hand.

Learn to manage stress and make positive changes. Set aside time for yourself and rearrange your schedule for a better study-life balance.

Prof Andrew advised parents to take it slow, especially with younger school-going children.

“To ensure they do not feel overwhelmed, children who have stopped attending school due to severe burnout need to start slow when being reintroduced back into that environment.

“A discussion with the school counsellor and a child psychologist can be helpful,” he said.

Noting that university students may be better able to take control of the situation, Prof Andrew said they should not be embarrassed to admit they are struggling with challenges in certain areas of study.

“Switch subjects if you are facing difficulties. Sometimes it’s not the struggle that is the problem but the need to stay ahead of others that leads to disappointment and burnout,” he explained.

Students, particularly those pursuing tertiary education, must regulate their distractions like the use of social media and messaging services, he said


"AFTER I got into medical school, I dedicated whatever spare time I had, to better myself. I was determined to be good at what I was doing. Not having a social life and burning the midnight oil to study seemed like an endless journey littered with countless exams, tests, and assessments. It was manageable although I was starting to crack.

Being a doctor has been my dream since I was a little girl. But pursuing one’s dream isn’t as easy as the advertisements or movies make it out to be.

What broke me was my housemanship. I was serving as a housemen for a year in one of the toughest hospitals in the Klang Valley. From an eager beaver, I became constantly tired, unwilling to get out of bed, emotionally exhausted and frankly, I just regretted my decision to enter the medical field.

I never knew I could feel that low and empty up until that point. I broke down and cried to my closest friends, telling them that I wanted to give up, that I was sick and tired of it all.

One of them pointed out that I may have put too much pressure on myself which caused me to burnout. I’ve learned about burnout before but never thought that I would be experiencing it, especially from something I’m passionate about. Thankfully, I managed to slowly and painfully get over the burnout I was feeling thanks to a good support system."

M. Jayyce, houseman

"I FELT tremendous stress when I was doing my Form Five last year, especially when it was nearing the SPM. I felt like giving up. I felt pressured by my peers who excelled academically. I was stressed out when I couldn’t understand a subject.

I didn’t want to be left behind and that led to me burning out. School activities and tuition were back-to-back everyday. My graduation was a week before SPM. We had to prepare performances and rehearsals were always on going whenever we didn’t have extra classes.

I was also in charge of getting the school magazine done, organising a fundraiser and an inter-school event. I wasn’t aware that students could

burnout. I thought it was a condition where you’re so overworked that you collapse from exhaustion but I never imagined that it could also be a feeling of helplessness or wanting to give up.

Credit to my friends who played a big part in encouraging me when I was on the verge of conceding defeat. We’d rant about giving up together, but at the same time, we’d encourage each other not to give up. I was lucky that I had the strength to pick myself up, whenever I felt defeated.

It was tough but I made it through and even managed to obtain a 70% scholarship for my tertiary education because I was so active in co-curricular activities."

Ben Mak, university student
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Burnout , Mental health , Students , Covid-19


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