Jared is a 19-year-old undergraduate student studying Biology at a four-year university. Like many students, Jared had a hard time transitioning into his first year of college. As a first-generation college student, he couldn’t rely on his parents to guide his transition into independence. Though he lacked college-educated family members that would be able to give helpful advice, he’d spoken with enough high school counselors and college coordinators to know what he was getting himself into, or so he thought. Jared’s first semester of college proved to be a significant wake-up call. He realized very quickly that what worked for him in his high school classes was no longer working for him in college. As he tried to spend more time studying for his classes, Jared’s seemingly open and flexible schedule quickly filled as he juggled classes, studying, homework, and leisure time while working a part-time job on campus. Despite his efforts, Jared struggled to maintain his grades and quickly fell into a panic as he desperately tried to improve. His anxiety grew with each exam he took. Before long, he realized he could no longer rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d genuinely felt calm, much less happy. Days became weeks as time became a blur of assignments, exams, and deadlines. After an incredibly disheartening first semester and a second semester that wasn’t on track to be much better, Jared reluctantly decided to visit the student counseling center on campus.
Fraternities, sororities, parties, studying, midterms, finals, and essays. Staples of the college experience, these components are almost definitive of the college lifestyle. In recent years, however, stress and anxiety have joined the ranks of everyday college life. Many might read this statement and disregard it as common sense. After all, who isn’t stressed these days? In order to comprehend why this is an issue, it is important to understand the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress is a natural human emotion that occurs in response to external stimuli. For the sake of the college student in question, external stimuli may present themselves in the form of assignments, deadlines, and exams. As unpleasant as it may feel, stress is essential to a healthy lifestyle for the role it plays as a motivator.1 Similar to how a jolt of pain might force someone to remove their hand from a hot pan, a student is motivated by stress to complete their assignments and do well in their classes if for the sole purpose of not wanting to feel stressed. Therefore, one might argue that stress is essential to success, in moderation. In healthy individuals, stress comes and goes as a natural response to events in our lives, however significant. Being cut off on a daily commute results in stress in the form of frustration or anger that eventually subsides as the day progresses. For students, the stress that is felt while studying for an exam subsides and is replaced with relief and pride after discovering that they did well on the exam. For healthy individuals, stress is temporary.
In contrast, anxiety is a mental health disorder in which the feeling of stress does not subside. For a student with anxiety disorder, doing well does not mean they get to relax after an exam. They have only completed and done well on one exam, but they still have three more exams and the final exam to worry about. There is no time to relax. For a student with anxiety disorder, stress is not a temporary emotion but a permanent burden, a part of everyday life.2
In a study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety in 2018, over 67,000 college students from over 100 American college campuses were surveyed on stress, anxiety, and depression. Students were also asked directly if they’d had suicidal thoughts or made attempts to harm themselves. Within the study, a stressful life event was defined as anything that “could be defined as traumatic and difficult to handle, such as academic pressures, career issues, death of a family member or friend, family problems, intimate and other social relationships, finances, health problems of a family member or partner, personal appearance, personal health problems, and sleep difficulties.” According to the study, three out of every four college students reported at least one stressful life event within the past year, while twenty percent reported experiencing greater than five stressful life events within the same time frame. Of those surveyed, one in five students reported thoughts of suicide, while one in ten students actually attempted it, which is “more than double the national average for adults.” In another study conducted by Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), a survey of 83 U.S. schools selected from top national universities and liberal arts colleges found that “nearly all responding reported an increase in students needing and accessing student mental health services.”3
In a brief discussion with an on-campus counselor, Jared was gently encouraged to open up about why he felt stressed and why he felt the need to seek help. As a child, Jared had been diagnosed with ADHD, but he had discontinued therapeutic treatment after his academic performance improved in middle school and high school. Though he never truly believed himself to be “smart,” Jared performed well above average and dramatically exceeded what was expected of him when he had received his diagnosis. Now in his first year of college, Jared felt compelled to meet the expectations set on him by his professors, family, friends, and especially himself. His academic performance since entering college had been incredibly disheartening and severely impacted his self-esteem as a student. He had entered his university on academic scholarship, the highest award offered by his school and the only one that would allow him to be able to afford its tuition. If he couldn’t improve, his scholarship would be in danger and he would no longer be able to afford tuition. With every exam he took he grew increasingly anxious. He could no longer rest or relax without feeling an incredible sense of guilt for wasting time that could be spent studying or working on assignments. Despite incessant efforts to improve, Jared saw little if any improvement in his grades and was quickly growing desperate. As much as he didn’t want to think about it, he began to wonder if his ADHD was beginning to affect his performance.
Though some would argue that modern college students have more advantages than previous generations, this by no means implies students today have it easy. Most if not all undergraduate students are quickly exposed to a new life of independence and responsibilities, many for the first time. Teenagers are suddenly thrust from the comfort of their homes into a completely new environment where they must now worry about new responsibilities such as managing finances and living on their own for the first time. Students must also learn to juggle student responsibilities including tuition costs, career choices, forming new relationships, assignments, exams, and finding and maintaining a job in the middle of it all. These new responsibilities place heavy burdens on new undergraduate students, particularly first-generation college students.4 Students must adapt to a completely new lifestyle while learning how to handle their newfound independence. In an interview conducted by ABC News, Alec L. Miller, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine described the challenges of new undergraduate students and the dangers they pose to their mental health. “The classic issue for many people starting out in college is separation from family. They’re free at last, but it’s a double-edged sword.”5
Other issues causing student stress may also lie in generational differences resulting from the parenting styles that new undergraduate students grew up with. Modern parenting relies on risk aversion, danger minimization, and protecting children from stress and anxiety. In an an article discussing the subject of stress in new undergraduate students, Sylvia Mathews Burwell wrote “Today’s incoming classes are a generation that received athletic trophies merely for participating. Becoming so used to winning makes it all the harder to deal with losing. It makes it harder to learn resiliency.” Students entering college today are from a generation of sheltered children that are seeing the real world for the very first time through an unfiltered lens. The result is a generation of students that struggle to cope with failure and disappointment.6
As the discussion with the counselor continued, Jared elaborated on why he was hesitant to seek help. Though he was vaguely aware that he was struggling with issues that were affecting his daily life, he also struggled with admitting to himself that there was something wrong, and so he created excuses for the state of his mental health. The way he saw it, he had no excuse to feel the way that he did. Everyone he knew was just as stressed as he was, what made him so special? Plenty of people also had much harder course work than Jared did, what gave him the right to feel stressed? The more thought he put into it, the more he became wrought with self-doubt. He’d also thought about whether his ADHD was affecting his performance in class, but he felt incredibly guilty for even considering the possibility. Jared’s performance in high school left him doubtful about his ADHD diagnosis as he was partially convinced that he had been misdiagnosed from the start. To even consider that a learning disability he might not even have was affecting his grades was, in Jared’s eyes, a despicable excuse for a lack of effort on his part. Blaming low grades on a learning disability he wasn’t sure he had would be an insult to those who actually struggle with such disabilities. Jared, however, felt he had no other choice. He didn’t want to admit that either he wasn’t working hard enough or he wasn’t smart enough for his major.
What begins as a simple instance of anxiety after a disappointing exam score can quickly spiral into a mess of self-doubt, stress, and even depression if not dealt with properly. A university campus creates the perfect atmosphere for mental health disorders to develop, especially for students at an age where such disorders are prone to manifest themselves. Most majors are very competitive. Students compete with one another for scholarships, internships, job opportunities, and post-graduate applications to law and medical schools. As a result of this competition, students will often measure their performance by comparing themselves to their peers, which can result in significant damage to confidence and self-esteem. Unfortunately, the availability of resources to assist when mental health issues arise is sometimes not enough to help those in need. In a study conducted by UCLA, less than 40% of surveyed students admitted that they would consider utilizing counseling services for issues dealing with stress and anxiety. Already an alarming statistic, researchers conducting the study emphasized that the findings could be much worse than reported, as stigmas surrounding mental health may have caused respondents to under-report their issues.7
In response to the challenges raised by growing mental health concerns and the stigmas surrounding them, universities across the country have set different programs in place to address the issues by “normalizing the college experience and the stressors involved” as well as providing outlets for students to relieve stress.8 One of these programs involves Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI), in which animals such as therapy dogs are brought onto college campuses. Research studying the use of animal-assisted therapy found programs involving therapy dogs to greatly reduce perceived levels of anxiety and loneliness while also increasing student perception of social support on campus.9 In addition to reported benefits, activities in which therapy dogs are brought onto college campuses create healthy opportunities for students to socialize with one another.
Alternative strategies involve a focus on prevention and detection. One proposed method of preventing excessive stress is to introduce courses designed to facilitate entrance into college life. Detection involves developing ways of detecting problems as they emerge, such as creating programs that detect when a student doesn’t download an assignment or isn’t showing up to classes. Of course, incorporating such programs can be causes for concern in themselves if done improperly. When discussing mental-health seminars with students, President of American University and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathew Burwells recalled being met with concern over the subject, with one student begging “Please don’t add anything to my already busy schedule that’ll further stress me out!” The goal, then, is designing convenient activities and seminars to raise awareness of stress and teach students about stress management techniques and encouraging students to attend without having to be forced or further overwhelmed.10
Another effective method of stress prevention is to build a sense of community on college campuses. Feeling a sense of community allows students access to support networks in addition to preventing feelings of loneliness and depression while also providing students with outlets to let others know of the challenges they are facing. This can be achieved by encouraging student involvement in campus activities and organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and other clubs on campus.11
After listening to Jared speak about his issues, his counselor began offering words of advice and encouragement, beginning first by commending his decision to seek help for his problems. For the remainder of their discussion, they would discuss stress management techniques as well as the importance of maintaining a healthy mindset. As his counselor explained, letting oneself fall victim to the effects of stress can have severe negative effects on academic performance, leading to lower grades and even more stress, creating a feedback loop that can become difficult to escape. With his counselor’s help, Jared created a plan for himself to minimize future stress and properly cope with any new challenges should they arise. Though their meeting was brief, Jared was incredibly grateful to have someone to open up to, and was glad to have sought help for himself before he left things get any worse.
If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or feeling depressed, please reach out to the Student Counseling Center. All students can utilize these resources.
Other Campus Resources:
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Additional Campus Resources for Mental, Spiritual, and Physical Wellbeing.