Kuntzman: Establishing an anti-stress culture requires an all semester long effort

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

On Dec. 13, 2019, a beautiful, fluffy Samoyed dog sat on the floor of Clark 206. A small group of Case Western Reserve University students sat nearby, some running their hands across her soft coat, others waiting for her to come closer. Not normally a campus denizen, she was brought to see students during finals week to help them relax. This practice, of course, is not unique to CWRU; bringing therapy dogs to college campuses during finals week is becoming a popular way to help reduce students’ stress levels as they prepare for finals. 

At CWRU, efforts to reduce students’ stress levels during finals week don’t end with therapy dogs. Events such as the Thwing Study Over create a space for students to unwind, do fun activities and eat free food. Acts of Random Kindness administered a giveaway with a theme of stress relief and Leutner and Fribley Commons traditionally host a free late-night breakfast during finals week. The Office of First-Year Experience sent out advice on how to study effectively, helping new students navigate the process of preparing for finals. 

These services show a strong commitment to reducing students’ stress levels during finals—a time when many students experience more stress than usual. However, studies suggest that finals are not the only time that college students are stressed out. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reports that 80 percent of college students experience frequent stress. First-year students are particularly vulnerable to high stress levels as they adjust to being in a new place and trying to make new friends. It is critical that CWRU emphasizes anti-stress culture throughout the semester and strives to maintain programs to help reduce students’ stress levels outside of finals week. 

CWRU does have measures in place to address this problem throughout the course of the school year. Students have access to free mental health care through University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS), and, starting in February 2020, UHCS will be launching “Let’s Talk,” a program where students can meet with counselors at different locations around campus, such as Kelvin Smith Library. UHCS states that the new program is “not a substitute for traditional counseling,” but by bringing counselors to locations students frequent it may encourage more students to meet with mental health professionals. It may also work well for students who are feeling stressed that particular day, but don’t necessarily need long-term counseling.

Despite these efforts, there does seem to be less of an anti-stress culture on campus now that finals are done and a new semester has begun again. Some of this may be because the events during finals week were a reaction to the stressful nature of finals, but the research by AIS shows that, for many college students, stress does not start or end with finals. Students who use the available therapeutic services may have lower stress levels, as studies have found that counseling is often a very effective way to improve mental health; however, students who could benefit from therapy may not use it due to its stigmatization. Initiatives such as “Let’s Talk” show the university’s commitment to encouraging students to seek help. However, stigma is a complex problem and it will take time to eradicate it. 

Educating students on healthy coping mechanisms and activities linked to lower stress levels could also help reduce stress. Yoga, for example, is considered a very effective way to relieve stress. CWRU offers yoga classes for physical education credit, but the number of spots is often smaller than the number of students who want to take it. Increasing the number of sections offered could help more students learn yoga, and potentially continue practicing it after they finish the course. Of course, offering courses isn’t the only way students could do and learn about ways to reduce stress. Having a weekly open campus session specifically advertised as a time for students to come and do activities linked to lower stress levels, such as art and petting therapy dogs, could improve students’ well being. 

CWRU could also look to other academic institutions for ideas on promoting positive, anti-stress environments.California State University, Chico created a space called the Zen Den on its campus. Designed to resemble a quiet living room, it includes massage chairs and hammocks behind curtains. The space was designed to be a calm environment where students can go to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Establishing a similar space on CWRU’s campus could be very beneficial to its students. 

Reducing stress levels on college campuses is extremely important for the health and well being of students. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but creating an anti-stress culture throughout the entire year is critical. Stress is a chronic problem on college campuses across the U.S. and needs to be addressed like one.