All-nighters and caffeine: a dangerous new normal

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When I asked a friend about his thoughts on the normalisation of all-nighters for students, he blinked blearily before informing me he was on his seventh cup of coffee of the day after tackling a 24-hour exam and was therefore feeling a bit out of it. I laughed.

But perhaps that’s the problem. His situation is nothing out of the ordinary, especially in exam season. I recalled feeling the same in summative season a few months before. The eye-bags and drowsy faces around Durham are no longer really seen as a cause for intense concern; everyone seems to be in the same boat, and therefore we don’t really see the problem.

This practice of immense amounts of caffeine and all-nighters is, however, just that – a problem.

Blurry eyes and drowsy faces should be viewed not with a smile, but with much justified concern

Research has found that student heart failures have been linked to the consumption of energy drinks. In the stress of deadlines, summatives, and exams, students are pushed to the mental and physical extreme, sometimes with fatal consequences. This has been normalised to the point that getting a full night’s sleep during summative and exam season almost seems strange. All-nighters are the new normal.

We need to take a step back here. How is it that so many of us can simply say “me too” when confronted with someone so evidently mentally drained to the point of physical exhaustion?

We all know the importance of rest, and yet in our own lives, many of us disregard this rest as a luxury out of our reach. Our physical well-being becomes secondary to our academic performance. This is not to accuse students of wrongly prioritising work over their own wellbeing. In any university proud of its academic strength, it’s impossible not to buy into the ideal of hard-working academic success. But when this academic success comes at a cost to our health, questions must be asked.

Students should try and see themselves as important and valued outside of academic deadlines and success

The reasons for the normalisation of all-nighters and heavy caffeine consumption are both simple and complex. On one hand, it is obvious why many of us are up until the early hours with lots of coffee and energy drinks: a huge workload. However, the increased stress of meeting Covid-19 era deadlines, the difficulty of time-management with recorded online lectures, and indeed a mental health epidemic, all feed into a wider context of problems with priorities. Especially in an entirely online working environment, it can feel difficult to reach out and ask for help.

As students are dying from trying to meet the requirements of academia, everyone needs to take a step back. Universities should understand and do everything possible to limit the mental strain of deadlines and exams, while students should try and see themselves as important and valued outside of academic deadlines and success. This is of course no mean feat, but it is one that is vitally important in saving our collective health and lives.

For this reason, the blurry eyes and drowsy faces should be viewed not with a smile, but with much-justified concern. We must not view the dangerous all-nighters many of us have been forced into with a shrug. Rather, we should question why we have been pushed to such unhealthy extremes, and demand change. It cannot, and should not, be the new normal.

Photograph: Suzannah Gilbert

One thought on “All-nighters and caffeine: a dangerous new normal

  • ‘Twas ever thus. Even in my day. all-nighters, pro plus and jolt cola were fixtures of the academic year. Some of us were even up all night not actually doing work, but playing heroic quantities of pool

    Reply

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