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Stressed and Depressed: A Mental Health Guide for Fashion Students

As students return to college following the Christmas break, BoF assesses the unique challenges at fashion schools — and how to overcome stress.
Illustration by Chelsea Carpenter for BoF
  • Sophie Soar

NEW YORK, United States — Self-indulgent but conscientious, open yet uptight — stereotypes plague "Generation Z," the categorisation for those born after 1995 who make up the majority of college students today. Indeed, within these adjectives are "emotional" and "anxious," which become readily apparent through the alarming rise in mental health statistics among Gen-Zs.

In its 2017 Annual Report, The Center for Collegiate Mental Health noted that, of almost 120,000 Gen-Zs surveyed in the US, 62.2 percent suffer from anxiety, 49.7 percent from depression and 45.5 percent from stress — a distinct rise from their Millennial and Baby Boomer predecessors.

Fashion students face their own unique challenges that pile on further stress. Many top institutions are known for cultivating high-pressure environments, which in turn reflect a creative industry with a cutthroat reputation. Following the suicide of a third-year fashion student from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in March 2018, students past and present, both at that school and numerous other elite and famous institutions, noted favoured practices of public shaming and humiliation, such as ripping up sketches and tools and reading grades in front of classes.

“Your issues aren’t going to be the same issues as somebody going to a regular school,” says ready-to-wear designer and recent graduate of Parsons School of Design, Sandy Liang. “For arts schools and design schools particularly, your challenges are unique.”

Citing the lack of a “normal” college campus life, the time-intensive “manual labour” of sewing and drafting patterns and chasing down internships around classes, Liang dispels the romanticism of art school as “fun and glamorous.”

Another recent fashion graduate Christopher John Rogers, an associate designer at Diane von Furstenberg and founder of his eponymous line, who trained at the Savannah College of Art and Design, adds the pressure to "perform" — being "some kind of personality" — alongside "juggling social responsibilities and personal responsibilities" to the list of fashion school challenges.

Your issues aren't going to be the same issues as somebody going to a regular school.

Indeed, for all students, the ever-inflating cost of education contributes significantly to their stress, with a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association finding concerns about money affects 81 percent of Gen-Z adults in comparison to 64 percent of adults overall. With tuition in the US reaching for some over $35,000 a year and, at £9,000, the UK’s standard fees now nine times more expensive than 15 years ago, the requirement of a return on that investment builds pressure.

“Students in general have much higher expectations of themselves,” says Marie Kan, head of counselling at the University of Arts London.

Here, BoF collates some advice as the next semester gets underway to help you alleviate the extra pressure.

Experiment in a Safe Space

Fashion education typically involves the need for experimentation to develop creative ideas or designs — a process that is time-intensive, laborious and often mentally draining. Each student must therefore figure out their preferred learning environment.

Building relationships with peers and tutors is important at the start of your educational journey. While attending classes and workshops are not enforced like in high school, they can help shape your studies and provide a support network and safe space later on in your degree.

“Use the studio and workshop spaces, get to know your peers and tutors and the technical staff,” says UAL’s Kan. “That goes a long way to making your environment a safe space to learn and a safe space to take risks.”

However, Parson’s graduate Liang found using her school’s facilities less preferable. “Some people just work better when they’re alone or at home,” she says. “Depending on how well you work in a studio setting, you might not want to be there.”

Don’t ‘Catastrophise’

Dr Mary Alvord, the director of Alvord, Baker & Associates and a psychologist specialising in children, adolescents and young adults with cognitive behavioural therapies, identifies a habit prominent among Gen -Zs to “catastrophise,” meaning a tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario.

“‘If I don’t do this, I’ll fail. If I don’t do this, nobody will like me, I’ll be all alone,’” she says. This internal pressure can result in hard-to-attain expectations on oneself, leading to a self-destructive outcome on one’s mental health.

High pressure deadlines also define fashion education curriculums, meaning students are constantly pushing themselves. Rogers said a college friend sewed through his fingers after days without sleeping in order to meet a deadline.

“Overstepping yourself is not a requirement. Just push yourself to be the best that you can without sacrificing the things that you need to function,” he said. “It’s okay to take a break and it’s ok to go out with friends or read a book or whatever you need to do to keep yourself sane.”

Exhaustion and overstimulation have also been linked to impaired sleep and depressive symptoms.

“The mind and the body are very much connected,” says Dr Alvord. “And while that sounds so simple, just getting a regulated schedule and enough sleep can help your mental health.”

Brace for the Internship Hustle

Work experience is now a necessity when applying for jobs after graduation, which presents another pressure to students as they also tackle their internal assignments.

“If you don’t spend time [interning] while you’re in school, it can be detrimental because then you’re losing more time,” says Liang. “You have to make the time to be able to dedicate yourself to that fully as well as going to school and that is just about where your priorities are.”

Many fashion schools today build time for internships into their programmes, ensuring that students gain the necessary work experience to succeed as a part of their curriculum. However, if your course does not provide time for internships, discuss with your course tutors a way to balance your schedule to make time around your assignments. They should understand.

Optimise on Student Services

During his studies at SCAD, Rogers took advantage of the counselling services while adjusting to university life — and he isn’t alone in seeking help. The APA 2018 survey found that 37 percent of Gen-Zs reported receiving help from a mental health professional, building on the CCMH’s earlier findings of a 30 percent increase in college students using counselling services over a six-year period between 2009 and 2015 — a similar trend to the UK, where 94 percent of universities have experienced a rise in demand for counselling services between 2012 and 2017, reported the BBC.

While Dr Alvord says counselling centres are “scrambling to get kids seen,” with university services “overwhelmed” with the number of students seeking help, she adds, “it’s hard to say, is there actually more anxiety and depression? Or is there less stigma to come forward and seek help? Which is what we want.”

Although Rogers only used the services at the start of his college career to help acclimate to his new environment, he encourages students to make use of those facilities and to be aware of all counselling options, so if the necessity arises, you know where to turn. Information will be available on college websites and at student unions.

Find Support in Your Community

With fashion school students facing unique challenges and deadlines, your classmates and friends will understand the shared pressures — and while you will set your own targets and personal expectations, your colleagues will be doing the same.

“For my mental health, I relied on my friends as pillars — people who were going through the same thing who could understand where I was coming from,” says Liang. “You need to create a community for your friends and rely on each other for support or advice or help.”

Dr Alvord adds that students can help one another, “almost like first responders. If you see someone who doesn’t seem to be doing well, just checking in has a profound effect in terms of reaching out.” What’s more, this can also have an impact on your own mental health, says Dr Alvord. “If you help somebody, it actually helps you become more resilient. The key is in that message. You are not alone.”

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