Is It Senioritis, Depression, or Burnout?

This article talks about depression. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 988 or text 741-741. If you would like to speak with an LGBTQ+ specific line, text 678-678 or call 1-866-488-7386. You deserve to be here. Have a wonderful day.

So y’all…I am not a doctor. I’m an 18-year-old with a room so messy a raccoon would be disgusted. Of course, I am not trying to diagnose anyone; I’m not a psychologist –even though for the record, I took General Psychology, which obviously makes me know more than the average person. Corny jokes aside, take whatever you want from what I’m about to write.

I will say though, sometimes you just don’t feel like it. Picture this: it’s 5:00 PM on a Tuesday. You have a small amount of homework due on Thursday. You have relatively high grades in the classes you have homework for, and the classes are fairly easy for you, thus making it easier for you to complete the work.and maybe you could knock it out in an hour. So, you have a plan: complete your homework, then do whatever you want. Except you just don’t feel like doing much; for many people, this means the homework becomes late. You’re late coming into classes for the next few days. It seems you’ve been struck with this unmotivated malaise, one that’s a tad more difficult than usual to swim out of.

Most of us, particularly those of us in our senior year, are aware of the phenomenon of “senioritis.” But sometimes, it seems that senioritis has a twin: depression. Or, sometimes, it seems that burnout is the real culprit. A lot of times, it’s hard to tell what’s what. Am I ducking my classwork because I don’t feel like doing it, or because I don’t feel like doing anything? Why can’t I sleep? Why do I not feel like going to club meetings? And what does it mean? So, to give a general starting point, today I’m just gonna write about some of the differences between senioritis, depression, and burnout, to hopefully give a general outline.

Lack of motivation
A hallmark symptom of senioritis is the lack of motivation. Many times, this lack of motivation can pool into club meetings and sports practices. Generally, this could mean a person is either slacking with their work, or having a much more difficult time with getting it done than usual (like me with this article.) But the kicker is that lack of motivation is also a hallmark symptom of depression. Worse still, it’s also a symptom of burnout! So, how can one tell the difference?

Usually, senioritis lack of motivation means that a person is not interested in their schoolwork, but could mean that they’re interested in other things. For example, you could be skipping your English IV/AP Lit presentation until the last minute, but during the weeks you had to get it done, you were binge watching your favorite guilty pleasure show (Grey’s Anatomy, American Horror Story or, goodness forbid, Riverdale). If that’s you, that’s probably senioritis.

Depression’s lack of motivation can often coincide with persistent, negative thoughts: “What’s the point of doing my homework? I’m a failure anyway, I could never hack it in school,” “What’s the point of doing my hobbies? I’m worthless and was never good at them,” “What’s the point of hanging out with my friends? They always secretly hated me.” If you’re having any of these thoughts along with your low motivation, it could be a sign of depression. This lack of motivation perpetuated by depression could lead to isolating oneself, quitting clubs or skipping multiple sports practices, and not turning in one’s homework which coincides with falling grades.

On the other other hand, a burnout’s lack of motivation could more or less also be due to a lack of direction. For this example, it’s important to define what the effects of burnout are: exhaustion, frustration, decreased productivity, and cynicism, often actualized from prolonged studying. Typically, burnout results from chronic large periods of study time — it often does not result from a single all-nighter or grinding on one project. So, with this, burnout and lack of motivation could mean questioning if you even like what you’re studying at all.

For example, say you’ve been dreaming about being a doctor since you learned what a doctor is after watching Doc McStuffins when you were 7. So in high school, you decided to take AP Bio, AP Chem, Anatomy & Physiology, all the health sciences courses your school offered. You took a leadership role in HOSA- Future Health Professions (formerly known as Health Occupations Students of America,) and any project that remotely involved the human body; you sucked it dry. And now you’re in your senior year, you got into XYZ University or University of ABC — HIJ or DEF College for Neuroscience/Biology/Biochemistry/Exercise Science/Physics or whatever pre-med major you so choose.

So you’re happy…or are you? Did you ever really like medicine or did you only like it because your parents always waxed lyrical about how you’d be the best doctor in the state and how you’d make them oh so proud? Do you really like medicine, or do you only really like the prestige and the Oohs and Aahs you’ll get after saying you’re an orthopedic surgeon/neurosurgeon/dermatologist? Do you really like medicine or are you just bag chasing? Next thing you know, you’re thinking about how a week into college you’ll be changing your major to, I don’t know, Underwater Basket Weaving. Now you’re unmotivated to finish your sixteenth health science class and regretting how you didn’t take literally anything else. If that’s only a slight variation of your current situation, that may be burnout.

This lack of motivation can morph into other aspects of schooling too. Are you at risk of receiving lunch detention for all your tardies and it’s only week two? I̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶o̶k̶a̶y̶, m̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶! You could apply these general guidelines to that as well. Have you been taking a couple more sick days than usual when you’re not really sick and you’re just playing Dead by Daylight? Because you haven’t been feeling like getting up for the past several weeks? Or do you just not want to go to Calculus BC because all your life you’ve been the math whiz, and now, any time you see limits, you have reached your limit and you wanna pitch the desks and chairs out of the window like a baseball player? Are you skipping soccer practice or theater rehearsals because you’ve been playing soccer since you could walk…because you’ve been in choir since you started speaking and are tired of it, or have you lost interest in all of your hobbies because you think you’re talentless and all your teammates/cast mates secretly all think you’re the worst? Look and decide for yourself which one relates most to you.

Mood swings

Next symptom of senioritis/depression/burnout would be mood swings. With these parameters, mood swings could include irritability and frustration or feeling down and sad a lot of the time. In these instances, it’s usually important to find where the mood swings are coming from. Say for example, you’re frustrated with your homework. You’re so sick and tired of it, you wanna vomit all over it in class. But then it’s not just the homework you’re sick of; you’re sick of all of your peers who aren’t your friends. You’re sick of the stools that are always in art and science classes because what specifically warrants that change, when there may or may not be a valid reason as to why there are stools in those classes that have never really been explained to anyone? If this is what is drawing your ire? Then that may be senioritis.

Burnout mood swings often swing under the radar, when in fact emotional exhaustion can be one of the largest symptoms of burnout. Emotional exhaustion ecompasses a variety of symptoms, some of which being irritability, hopelessness, absentmindedness, and apathy. Take our pre-pre-med student for example: now that they are having a crisis between becoming a sociology student or a smelly art major, they can hardly think of the answer to a question like: “Which of the following controls body temperature, sleep, and appetite?” (answer: hypothalamus.) But then they’re not only unable to think of an answer about anatomy & physiology, they are unable to feel as though they are connected to their own life–this could be burnout depersonalization. Consequently, at its worst, they feel disconnected from their friends and family. If that sounds like you, that could be a symptom of burnout.

In both of these scenarios, a person is experiencing mood swings more situationally. With depression, a person is often not in that episode because of anything in particular. Additionally, the person is feeling that way for weeks at a time (assuming 5 or more matching symptoms, the DSM-5 says about two weeks at minimum.) One person’s symptoms may look different from others: Person A may be extremely sad and cry everyday, Person B may just be numb all the time, Person C could be frequently angry, and Person D may be a mix of all three. In any case, these symptoms last most of the day for nearly every day. So if, for example, you’re often questioning why you’re crying most days and have a hard time with tasks like eating or showering before going anywhere, those could be signs of depression. The same could be said if you’re frequently lashing out at people, or having a hard time feeling anything at all.

Grades slipping

When it’s difficult to muster up any motivation, there are times when grades slip a bit. For many people, it’s because they’ve reached their endgame. After weeks of slogging through nights of self-studying for the AP test score you want, burning the midnight oil over reading through your history textbook for next test, and spending hours scratching your head over assignments for a class you were struggling with to get a decent grade, all of that work culminates into putting the finishing touches on the short essays for the behemoth Common App essay, the short answers for the universities one is applying to, and pressing the submit button for that clickable confetti congratulating you for turning it in on time.

They then wait with bated breath for anywhere from 2 weeks to 5 months for their email saying the committee’s reached a decision. For many people, more confetti appears in big letters saying “Congratulations”; they got into the school they wanted to go to. It’s done, it’s over, it’s finished. And burning the midnight oil for so long, now they feel they can do other things, stuff that they’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t because they were too busy grinding. They pick up piano, play video games more, join an intramural sports group, hang out with friends more, do whatever they want. And from there, grades take a back seat. Though this scenario doesn’t occur to everyone — search on r/ApplyingtoCollege for a few minutes and the question “Will I get rescinded for a B/two Bs/one C” understandably resurfaces — this situation can be fairly common.

Yet, when this phenomenon is emblematic of a mental health issue can be traced to the context and the timeframe. The situation of a senior’s grades dropping during their second semester or even second half of their first semester due to getting into the school they wanted to go to as opposed to a student who has had their grades decreasing for quite some time due to negative thoughts that become a self-fulfilling prophecy are different occurrences. This is much of the reason why a slump in grades due to depression can also be attributed to a diminishing ability for self-expression.


It happens to up to 33-50% of the American adult population, about 10-30% of the world; you go to bed at 10:00pm, in this case needing to wake up around 6:00-8:00 am. So you hop in bed (note that physically being in the bed does not count as sleeping time,) and do what normally works to help you fall asleep. Except whatever you’re doing, it ain’t working, so you hop onto your phone, ironically burning your eyes with the blue light making it harder to fall asleep, to find ways that may be able to help you. You put on some music, you count backwards from 100, you picture yourself somewhere relaxing, you do deep breathing, and then before you do your last round of 4-7-8 or square or whatever breathing exercise you like, you realize you still feel terribly awake and jittery. You wake up–if you ever fell asleep at all– the next morning and feel as though you got about 1.5-4 hours of sleep. For about 10% of people, this happens enough that this becomes a sleep disorder known as insomnia, a condition where you have trouble falling asleep, wake up a lot at night, have a hard time falling back asleep, and just generally get little to no sleep. So how does it fair in relation to senioritis/depression/burnout?

The thing about a lack of sleep from senioritis and depression is that both can be due to having racing thoughts. However, irregular sleeping from senioritis can also be due to occupation with other things apart from sleeping. Maybe all that homework that a person procrastinated on is causing them to put their head to the bed at 2 am (once again, me with this article, and honestly every article that came before it.) Or maybe those times you swore you’d stop scrolling on TikTok or any other social media after 11pm but you just said one more video and you’ve actually just watched one-hundred more videos and it’s once again now 2 am and you’re ducking Astronomy to sleep in your car or negotiate with your parents to take you to school for second period but not first period because you’re not really doing anything today and even if you did miss anything today it could just be made up at home easy peasy, and if your parents say no you just straight up sleep in class. Alternatively, you could be experiencing irregular sleeping patterns because you’re occupied with thoughts about the future. Did I make the right college choice? Now I gotta apply for scholarships. I am about to graduate and be on my own for at least a year. Do I really want that, am I ready for that freedom? If any of those situations are yours, that could be senioritis.

Unfortunately, insomnia is often part of depression’s package. In fact, in some cases it’s a chicken or the egg thing: is insomnia causing the depression, or is the depression causing the insomnia? How come? It can stem from racing thoughts, which often coincide with negative thoughts. These racing thoughts could be over things they couldn’t or could control. In the latter, the negative portions of that situation are often blown to an extreme. In any case, this rumination leads to anxiety, thus leading to lack of sleep. It’s hard to sleep when a person is thinking about how a lower-than-usual test score is indicative of their failure as a person, or how not saying something to a friend has led them to hating them and is emblematic of how callous or inadequate of a friend they are. That could be a sign of depression.

A similar occurrence can go on with burnout, except with burnout, part of the reason why a person may be having a hard time sleeping could be because they have overworked themselves for a long period of time. This can result in a cyclical problem where a lack of sleep leads to more emotional exhaustion, thus resulting in greater burnout. Due to the chronic stress that is likely causing the burnout, a person has more difficulty sleeping, thus leading to a vicious cycle; a person cannot sleep at night due to stress, they are drained, thus leading to greater symptoms of burnout that make it harder to sleep. So, if a person is experiencing sleeping difficulties from the fall out of their extreme stress and anxiety, thus finding it difficult to sleep later, this could be a sign of burnout.

Why does senioritis exist, and what does it mean?

In a poll, six seniors had different things to say. All of the students who completed the poll said they were experiencing senioritis, whether the onset was since their junior year (junioritis), the summer between junior and senior year, August or December — most commonly, students said November. When inquiring about the reasons for seniors’ development of senioritis, the responses came all across the board.

One senior discussed college application stress, “The stress of applying to colleges and then finally feeling like you have a break.”

Another senior remarked on school being “horribly underwhelming, and I don’t do any work because I don’t have any.”

Two seniors remarked on things seeming optional and lack of motivation: “Because they are so close to finishing that they just lose motivation,” “we usually only have about two classes left to graduate so the rest just feel unnecessary”

One senior simply said, “I’m being kept in prison.”

Another student went for a longer response on things seeming optional and burnout: “Because we know that graduation is impending, and the weight of that knowledge alone is hugely demotivating. Most seniors have all their credits finished by the end of first semester, so just knowing that we don’t technically NEED to be at school for second semester and are literally just pushing through until graduation with no risk of failing makes everything seem optional. That combined with just second semester burnout overall is honestly brutal, and it makes it so hard to focus and exist while being a senior.”

With this, are there any things that seniors can do to reduce any of these symptoms? That can depend on the issue they’re having. As well as that, it can be important to recognize where the issues are stemming from. It’s no secret that, particularly with the pandemic, many seniors have had a pretty mediocre experience with school. Mental health issues may have resurfaced or been exacerbated during that time and have never truly died down even with in-person schooling. With this, many people are just ready to go out and see if the next chapter of their lives is better. Or perhaps a person has great memories of their high school years, and they don’t want to really leave those behind.

In any case, it’s important to be patient with yourself. Everyone is entering a new phase of life that can be terribly confusing, wacky, and paved with both uncertainty and fun. In the time you do have to wait for schooling decisions, waiting to graduate and start your new job, or waiting to enter your new school, try to take care of yourself. It can be anything, from taking a shower, to taking a 15 minute walk to listening to some music that once made you happy. If there are people in your life that you like to hang out with, try to spend some time with them. If you have the energy, try something new that you’ve always wanted to do. And of course, if you’re struggling deeply with senioritis, depression, or burnout, and it’s getting incredibly difficult to manage, try to talk to someone. One conversation can truly make a world of difference.


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