Now we’re stressed out

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If there’s one thing that college students know about, it’s stress. It surrounds us constantly, hanging like a dark cloud over every facet of our lives, whether it be academics, professional relationships or career plans. Making things even worse is the fact that college is, for many students, the very first time that they are living on their own, completely responsible for virtually every aspect of their own lives. Under conditions like that, it is no wonder that nearly 45 percent of college students nationwide say that they experience more than average stress.

For students at Case Western Reserve University, a school famous—or as some might say, infamous—for its academic rigor, the pressure to succeed can be great enough to often feel overwhelming. In such seemingly dismal circumstances, what can a hassled undergraduate do to cope? Plenty, according to Dr. Eleanor Davidson, clinical director of Health at University Health Service (UHS), and her long-time collaborator, Dr. Sara Lee, assistant professor of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Both addressed the issue in detail at their Sept. 22 talk for the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE).

“[College] is a difficult time in life,” said Davidson, detailing many of the issues that she hears about from students she works with personally.

“You have to go live away from home, and then you get a roommate. These are [already] two separate issues. You have to eat in a very busy place and often students actually find that very stressful, to suddenly have to go and eat at Leutner [Commons]. Then you have to go to class … with all these very bright people around you,” she said.

Moreover, college is a time of serious personal transformation, added Lee.

“It’s a time of transition into adulthood, so there are all these tasks that you theoretically have to accomplish, where you have to establish an identity and establish independence,” she said.

Further compounding the situation are the pressures that students often place upon themselves in an effort to remain true to some idealized self-standard, elaborated Davidson. Especially at a school like CWRU.

“I would say Case students tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of students tell me they like anxiety, that ‘it’s their friend,’ or ‘it makes them get things done.’ But then I always have to explain to them [that] the downside of anxiety is when you get really high on anxiety, your quality of life goes down.”

 But despite all of these seemingly ubiquitous stressors, the doctors emphasize that there are a whole host of very simple yet very effective countermeasures that can be taken by students in order to manage and overcome such pressures.

“When we see students,” explained Davidson, “we always try to engage them in some form of exercise, because it’s the easiest, most readily available, ‘cheap’ form of stress relief. And that can be as much as walking 30 minutes a day outside.”

Furthermore, “modern” activities like yoga or mindfulness meditation, which may not have been available to students a few decades ago, are heartily endorsed by both physicians.

“We often work on mindfulness teaching with Greek Life,” said Lee. “There are also apps for mindfulness, for students who don’t want to do it with us. But it’s definitely helpful, however they choose to do it.”

Another self-evident method that the doctors advocate is time management, perhaps the fundamental bane of all students everywhere.

“We always stress time management as a big thing,” declared Davidson. “Case students will tell you they don’t sleep eight hours, but when you ask them why, [they’ll say] it’s not because they don’t know that they’ll do better if they get more sleep, or that they can’t sleep. It’s because they get to midnight or one in the morning, and they’ve still got too much to do.”

For this reason, she is a big fan of the Educational Services for Students (ESS) department, which provides time management training and monitoring for students. Particularly helpful, feels Davidson, is the opportunity provided by ESS for students to come and sit at a table with other students while working, in order to encourage mutual motivation.

Another huge problem faced by many students across the country who suffer from stress is the stigma associated with seeking help. Many worry that they may be perceived as “weak” for admitting that they require assistance. However, according to Lee, such fears are almost completely misplaced here at CWRU.

In 2013, Lee helped administer a national survey that examined mental health and wellness among college students at CWRU. Lee said that the study actually showed lower than average rates of depression and anxiety among CWRU students when compared to the national average.

CWRU provides a more supportive environment for students than many other universities do, according to the findings. The data indicated that about 90 percent of CWRU students perceived that there was no stigma associated with obtaining services, and were supportive of their fellow students seeking help for mental health problems.

 “One of the main things we can do to [assuage fears about seeking treatment for mental health] is to tell you: stigma at Case is fairly low,” said Lee. “So you shouldn’t feel like people are going to think poorly of you; there just isn’t as much stigma as one might think.”

Nonetheless, certain students who are especially isolated or anxious may not feel inclined to make the effort to seek help. UHS has them covered.

A variety of programs and initiatives have been developed by UHS members and volunteers to reach particularly vulnerable or isolated students. One plan, for instance, that Lee and Davidson covered extensively at their UCITE talk is the QPR program, which stands for “Question, Persuade, Refer.”

QPR is a suicide-prevention program aimed at training staff on how to become “gatekeepers” qualified to and amply capable of dissuading desperate students from taking their lives, and instead ensuring that they get the help and guidance they need.

Perhaps the most moving idea from UHS, however, is one designed by its student volunteers: the creation of “rain murals” that are easily visible only when it is raining or particularly dark outside.

The murals, which are strategically placed throughout campus, contain short, inspiring messages such as “you are not alone,” as well as emergency contact information for the suicide prevention task force, poison control center, etc. This strategy is very effective psychologically, managing to successfully target lonely or troubled students at singularly dreary times, in a subtle, tactful manner that allows them to seek help if they feel they need it, without anyone else knowing.

In a similar psychological maneuver, Lee and Davidson decided to change the title of the suicide prevention task force they helped develop from “Mental Health Task Force” to “Health and Wellness Task Force.” The reasoning was that the more innocuous-sounding name would assuage any possible doubts that students seeking help might have about appearing “mentally impaired.”

Such carefully-crafted moves, coupled with the array of options provided by UHS and its related organizations, serve to augment a point that both Lee and Davidson feel very strongly about.

“We don’t believe undergraduates should be responsible for picking the ‘right’ place for mental health. They should be able to pick any place, and we should work seamlessly with them to [provide] them the services they need,” said Dr. Davidson. “We try to make portals of entry, doors you can walk through, everywhere.”