Hello to College Joys: Keep Stress Off Campus

By JANE E. BRODY - New York Times - August 26, 2003 - original

Adults are often quick to tell college students: "Enjoy yourselves. This is the best time of your lives." But for an increasing number of students, the college experience is marred by chronic anxiety, stress and distress.

College counselors report a sharp increase in the need and demand for mental health services, and that can sometimes result in long waiting lists, making the troubled students' problems even worse.

In recent years more than 80 percent of campuses have noted significant increases in serious psychological problems, including severe stress, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, according to an annual survey of counseling centers by Dr. Robert P. Gallagher of the University of Pittsburgh.

Causes of Stress Abound

Some of this emotional distress can be attributed to financial worries in these economically uncertain times. Looking at the dismal employment situation, many students with college loans fret about how they will be able to repay them.

Furthermore, family support systems are not what they used to be for students whose parents are separated, divorced or remarried. Even within colleges, there may now be less support from peers, with the increase in nontraditional students who live on their own off campus rather than in dormitories.

But also, a host of new drugs have enabled more students with mental illnesses to attend college.

These challenges can land on top of traditional causes of student distress like broken romantic relationships, bad grades, insufficient sleep, difficulty making friends, failing to join fraternities or sororities, homesickness or simply feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work that has to be done.

The burden is especially heavy for student athletes who constantly have to juggle the demands of schoolwork and teamwork and for students who have to work to help pay for their schooling.

It does not take much to send a vulnerable 18-year-old into an emotional descent. I recall feeling as if I were in an academic sinkhole and close to suffering an emotional meltdown at the start of my sophomore year.

Although I had good grades in hard courses as a freshman biochemistry major, I began to doubt my interest in the field and questioned whether I had even chosen the right college. I became anxious, depressed and paranoid, thinking that no one liked me and that everyone was speaking ill of me.

But before I abandoned my major and college, I consulted a psychologist at the campus health center, who helped to turn my academic goals and my outlook on college life in a more positive direction.

After tests and talk revealed no underlying mental illness, the therapist suggested that I find an activity that I might enjoy and that would help me feel more a part of college life. So I joined my college's monthly magazine, began writing and editing science-related articles and eventually realized that my passion lay in writing about science rather than doing it. The rest is history.

Strategies Gone Awry

Far too many students turn to tobacco and alcohol to assuage their emotional crises and, in the process, make them worse. Recent studies have shown, for example, that smoking cigarettes causes rather than alleviates stress.

The stress that smokers typically experience when not smoking is induced by nicotine withdrawal, prompting them to believe that they cannot cope with life without cigarettes. But if they had not become hooked on nicotine to begin with or if they broke their addictions by quitting cigarettes (and nicotine replacements), most would eliminate the need to smoke to relieve stress.

Smoking by college students soared in the 1990's, and by 1999 one-third of students were reportedly current smokers, many of them having started after entering college. But more and more colleges are making it very hard to be a smoker on campus. Many forbid smoking in all campus buildings. Some campuses have become entirely smoke free and instead offer smoking-cessation programs for students and faculty members.

Drinking alcohol especially binge drinking has long been a troublesome college pastime, even when most students are younger than the legal drinking age. Many students drink alcohol simply to be part of the crowd. Others drink to help them relax and forget their problems.

But what most students in fact, most people do not realize is that alcohol is a depressant that only temporarily masks ill feelings but in the end makes matters worse. And binge drinking is plain dangerous. A few students each year die directly from alcohol intoxication. Many more die indirectly by doing something stupid while drunk.

Meanwhile, some colleges are working hard to help students resist the temptation to drink and are providing alternative activities to those where alcohol is most likely to flow. Rather than being stigmatized for refusing alcohol, students who participate in such activities are increasingly seen as campus leaders.

Another all-too-common but ill-conceived mechanism for coping can lead to an eating disorder. The problem may start with stress-induced compulsive eating, leading to weight gain or a fear of it. Desperate attempts to control unwanted pounds may lead to risky diets or even bulimia, the binge-and-purge syndrome that is said to afflict up to 15 percent of young women on some campuses.

Fresh Approaches

Young people with emotional problems often think that they are the only ones so afflicted and that no one understands them. But few if any such problems are unique, and talking about them to a good listener, professional or otherwise, can often make matters seem less serious and more manageable.

It can also lead to creative solutions for even seemingly impossible problems.

A student overwhelmed by a difficult course load may find that dropping an especially troublesome course and taking it or an alternative in summer school or the next semester is far more workable.

Those plagued with monetary worries can consult financial aid offices and explore options like scholarships, part-time or summer jobs or government loans that do not have to be paid back until after graduation.

Instead of using food, drugs, alcohol or tobacco in a counterproductive attempt to relieve stress, students might consider any of a number of wholesome relaxation techniques including meditation, yoga and physical exercise.

Sometimes a short walk or bike ride can help gain a healthier perspective and renewed vigor for dealing with challenging tasks. No matter how busy a student is academically, everyone needs a break and some fun from time to time to restore emotional reserves.

Finally, when emotional distress seems beyond self-help solutions, troubled students should not hesitate to seek professional counseling on campus or off.

Often the campus medical clinic can provide free or low-cost mental health services.

Using such help no longer provokes a stigma. Rather, it is a smart move that can be lifesaving. Plus, you never know where it might lead. It led me, for example, to a very rewarding career.