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Floating Duck syndrome: A new perspective on mental health and transparency

By The Charger Account Editorial Staff November 10, 2022

High school is difficult; many students go all out to maintain stellar grades and devote countless hours to extracurricular and volunteer activities. Should they wish to take on leadership positions, they must invest even more time and resources. To keep up with their classmates, each of whom seem more impressive than the next, immense stress looms over students and unexpected predicaments in both academic and social spheres often arise. Despite their struggles, students often remain silent about their hardships and effort, perpetuating a culture of the floating duck syndrome.

“Floating duck syndrome,” first coined at Stanford University, refers to a phenomenon where similar to a floating duck, students appear to be graceful and at ease while in reality, they are furiously paddling beneath the surface to remain floating. As KQED explains, many students hide the work they put into school work and activities from their peers, fearing they will be perceived as “trying too hard.” However, there is more to floating duck syndrome than just mental health.

In the pursuit of success, relationships between students can often turn toxic as they compete against each other for a limited number of leadership positions, college admissions acceptances or high grades. The issue is further exacerbated by the prevalence of social media, where people mainly post the highlights of their lives, burying the hardships they had to overcome to reach their goals. Thus, when certain students pretend that they are effortlessly floating on the water, others may feel inclined to push themselves further to keep up with their seemingly relaxed peers—while concealing the work they do to maintain an illusion of ease.

Transparency and openness are key to a healthier student culture. It is easy to tell others to take care of themselves and reduce their workload, but one’s own actions speak much louder than words. In many cases, the same individuals who preach for mental health awareness are also the ones who inhibit floating duck syndrome the most, actively or subconsciously.

The Tech—the official newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—puts it perfectly: “the only ducks who can float truly effortlessly are rubber ducks, and the rest of us can only pretend.”

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