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College is stressful. A survey of 14,000 first-year college students in eight countries found that 35% struggled with a mental illness. Here in the U.S., college students seeking mental health services report that anxiety is their number one concern. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, stress negatively affects academic performance for nearly one in three college students. With this in mind, how can student development professionals and higher education institutions help students manage stress?
Pandemic-related stress in college students
It’s not news that the coronavirus pandemic elevated levels of stress for most people across the United States. But according to survey results released by the American Psychological Association (APA), young adults ages 18 to 23 experienced the highest stress levels. Nearly 90% of this age group cited education as a significant source of stress. These causes of stress make sense considering college students faced the brunt of uncertainties as colleges closed campuses and transitioned to online learning following the virus outbreak.
In fact, a recent survey from the American College Health Association asked undergraduate students how much distress came from various aspects of their lives. Of students who had experienced challenges with academics in the past 12 months, over 80% of students said academics had caused them moderate or high distress. Additionally, according to a survey by TimelyMD, 82% of college students continue to experience higher than normal levels of stress and anxiety due to COVID-19.
The common college stress in students
Of course, COVID-19 only added to the stress college students experience when they transition to college life. College Parents of America says that in addition to academic performance, variables like culture shock, homesickness, and adjustments in social life can overwhelm first-time students. A bad grade, a fight with a roommate, or the end of a relationship can lead to feelings of sadness, loneliness, or low self-worth.
Research finds that following high school and into the first two years of college is the most significant increase in anxiety for students. During this transition, sleep disruption fueled by excess caffeine and all-nighters can heighten anxiety. Excessive social media use also causes an increased sense of isolation and additional mental health issues.
There is also the stress of affording college. Tuition in both community and private colleges increases every year. Often overlooked costs like school supplies and books may be a part of why close to 70% of college students work part-time while in college, which forces them to find a balance between their job and their academic success. And, students who work while in college may unknowingly diminish their financial aid eligibility depending on their earnings. “It can actually cost students to have a job,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons. “Those earning more than about $7,000 will see their income factored into the financial aid calculation.” All of these variables and many others, contribute to the stress in college students.
Signals of student stress
Because signs of stress in college students can be confused with other ailments, it is vital to understand how it affects students so it can be correctly identified. Common signs include:
- Feelings of agitation or irritability
- Inability to relate, social anxiety
- Lowered self-esteem, loneliness, depression
- Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
These are a few of the many signs of stress. It’s important to note that stress affects everyone in different ways. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) identifies 50 signs of stress and notes that there may be even more not yet recognized.
How higher education can support students
The college environment has been defined as “a system of pressures, practices, and policies intended to influence the development of students toward the attainment of important goals of higher education.” This means that your campus culture has the power to guide the attitudes and priorities of its members. And because the culture of academia fosters pressure and stress, it’s on the leaders to provide resources and support to mitigate the negative effects of stress to promote a healthy culture. Here are five considerations for higher education leaders:
1. Raise awareness to reduce stigma
Student development professionals can support students by raising awareness about college stress and anxiety. The message that the symptoms of stress are common and manageable can reduce the stigma for those who are struggling and increase the likelihood they will reach out for help. The National Institute of Mental Health provides helpful resources to better understand stress and how to manage it.
2. Create spaces on campus that promote calm
The importance of establishing peaceful, relaxing spaces where students can engage in stress management practices is well documented. Specific factors of the physical environment can play a role in decreasing stress as well. For example, the configuration of a room, the color of its walls, and the amount of light it receives can either contribute to or minimize stress. Providing areas for relaxation and optimizing features of physical spaces effectively support stress reduction.The importance of establishing peaceful, relaxing spaces where students can engage in stress management practices is well documented. Specific factors of the physical environment can play a role in decreasing stress as well. For example, the configuration of a room, the color of its walls, and the amount of light it receives can either contribute to or minimize stress. Providing areas for relaxation and optimizing features of physical spaces effectively support stress reduction.
3. Provide support beyond academics
4. Promote student success
Navigating the systems and bureaucracy inherent in higher education is stressful to students. College administrators can reduce that stress throughout the school year by minimizing the obstacles impeding the successful navigation of their systems. By improving the quality of services and lessening the barriers that may complicate students’ ability to receive support, colleges improve student satisfaction and equip students to manage the college systems effectively. In doing so, students can build the coping mechanisms to become independent adults capable.
5. Reduce barriers to emotional support
Administrators can also work on reducing barriers for students who need resources for managing stress by offering support to students via phone, online chat, and drop-in sessions. For instance, TimelyMD offers an on-demand emotional support service called TalkNow. This telehealth service provides students easily accessible, high-quality care and immediate treatment for any type of mental health concern — from trouble with an unruly roommate to crisis situations.
Telehealth services like TalkNow eliminate the days or weeks of wait time that a student may encounter to get support from campus counseling resources. It also removes the potential stigma of walking into a counseling center to seek care. And, telehealth services help optimize clinic resources and mental health care staff in delivering quality care to the right students at the right time.