Stress on campuses also on the rise

By Ami Albernaz
January 1st, 2010

As enriching as the college years are for most students, they undeniably come with some stress, as students are – for the first time, in many cases – squarely in charge of their routine, and are forging an identity away from the familiar strictures of hometown and family. Recently, the economic downturn has added another layer of pressure, as students worry both about their prospects for work after college and how they or their parents will afford ever-climbing tuition bills.

“I’m surprised at the number of students who tell me one or both of their parents are unemployed,” says Tom Lavin, Ph.D., director of the counseling center at Rhode Island College. “Many students are working a number of hours, in addition to school. That makes it difficult to comprehend how they’re having a social life as well.”

Lavin adds that although the student experience today is different in many ways from what it was decades ago, the students’ core challenge – figuring out who they are – is the same. Yet “there are fluctuations in the level of stress depending on the economic and cultural climate,” he says.

Rising tuition and personal financial difficulties have raised the stakes in maintaining scholarships, says Mary Jane Klinkhammer, LICSW, a clinical counselor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston, R.I. The school’s centennial scholarship requires a student’s grade point average not drop below a 3.0. “That can be hard for people,” Klinkhammer says. “Those are the kinds of things that can cause stress.”

Stress can throw anyone off equilibrium, but for students who are just beginning to take the helm of their lives, it can pose even more of a challenge. “Just the developmental age of college students can make it difficult for them to find balance,” Klinkhammer says, adding that many students come to college with little experience in working things out on their own. The basics of stress management – proper diet, sleep and exercise – can conflict with the social and academic pressures typical of college life.

Most schools have some sort of counseling service that students can seek out if they’re feeling overly stressed. Some counseling center Web sites, including URI’s, include links to self-assessments and advice on how to help other students. The University of Connecticut’s Health Education Office contains a “relaxation station” with a water fountain, two massaging back rests, a full body massager and a neck and foot massager. Students are given “relax packs” with teas, massage oils, information on stress management techniques – and bubble wrap.

The health center also hosts stress-down days at the end of each semester, with zumba classes and reiki and has held laughter club sessions.

“We don’t want students to think there’s only one way to manage stress,” says Joleen Nevers, MA.Ed., health education coordinator and certified laughter leader. “People tend to have one or two approaches. What I stress is to have a backpack of techniques. If someone’s always going for a run to manage stress, it might not work one day.”

Though students understand the importance of managing stress, many feel they don’t have much time to devote to it. For this reason, Nevers says, she and her colleagues plan activities that will take no more than 20 minutes to do.

For many college counseling services, the top priority is letting students know they’re always available.

“Every day of the week we have someone on call, even on the phone. We welcome that,” Klinkhammer says. She adds that whether because of better diagnosis or earlier intervention, students seem to be more aware of mental health issues now, compared to students of years ago.

Some counseling center staff also train faculty to recognize and refer troubled students.

“We’ll have consultations with faculty who call us up and might say students have written things in an assignment that seem worrisome,” Lavin says. “We try to consult with them on how to approach those students in a non-judgmental way.”

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