Campuses get creative in battling soaring student stress

Amid concerns about rising anxiety and stress on campus, never have colleges and universities done so much to tend the student soul.

Seneca College offers noise-blocking headphones — like the ones construction workers wear — to students with test anxiety while they write. It bought 15 pairs and needs more.

“Anxiety Drop-ins” are a hit at the Ontario College of Art and Design University to help ease mid-term stress.

At the University of Toronto, hundreds of students flock to 14 free drop-ins for “mindful meditation” each week to learn to battle distraction by focusing on their breathing, not their blues.

A new “Take Care” counselling program at Ryerson lets students click on their particular problem for a link to a weekly group. Worried? Consider the Inner Peace: Zen Power Hour. Overwhelmed? How about the Stress Management Lab? Do you “feel like you’re going nowhere?” They’ll talk about that in the Take Care of Your Thoughts: Shift Your Thinking group.

And never mind the “therapy dogs” so popular on most campuses to ease exam nerves; U of T’s New College brings live kangaroos, owls and even a python, which some, apparently, find calming to touch.

Amid growing concerns about soaring anxiety and stress on campus, never have colleges and universities done so much to tend the student soul.

The Ivory Tower is becoming a kinder, gentler, more emotionally nurturing institution because colleges and universities now see student mental health as part of their job. These long-standing citadels of the cerebral say they now recognize the mind can’t learn if the heart is troubled — and they have picked up the challenge. Many institutions have adopted sweeping mental health strategies that go beyond the suicide awarenessprograms hailed as critical in recent years, to bring emotional coaching designed to keep students from spiraling into crisis in the first place.

“I could ask cheekily, if educational institutions don’t help people to develop the kind of strong life skills necessary to achieve their full capacity, who will?” asked Provost Mayo Moran of U of T’s Trinity College, which has just hired its own “embedded counsellor” so Trinity students don’t need to traipse across campus to counselling headquarters.

U of T has embedded 15 counsellors at colleges and faculties such as law, business, dentistry, engineering and commerce.

“If we tell students when we recruit them that this is your home away from home, you’re coming here to be transformed in a holistic way and become a better person, then our responsibilities have to go beyond more than just academic or we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” said Kelley Castle, dean of students at U of T’s Victoria College.

“We’re just trying to figure out what our duty of care is, so we help without going too far.”

Some suggest emotional coaching should enter the curriculum itself.

“If we teach students how to write papers and grant applications, we should teach them how to concentrate through meditation,” said Richard Foty, a PhD student in U of T’s Institute of Medical Science. He takes a weekly meditation class with psychology professor Brenda Toner, who includes meditation sessions in her fourth-year course on mindfulness.

“We call them soft skills,” said Foty, “but they’re the core of being a human being.”

Why are students so stressed? Campus officials say many are distraught at their job prospects, unequipped to stick-handle life without their parents’ help and caught in a social-media pressure cooker from which they dare not unplug.

Some students are stressed because they need academic help, noted Terry McQuaid, Seneca’s director of counselling and accessibility services. “They’ve grown up in the all-students-must-pass philosophy, so some of their skills in math and literacy aren’t what they should be,” she said, “and now they have to demonstrate the skills so it leads to high anxiety.”

Add financial woes; the average York University student has to work 20 hours a week and commutes 90 minutes a day, said Janet Morrison, vice-provost of students, “so money is a number one driver of student anxiety.”

The number of students with clinical disorders is rising each year, and U of T sees “10 to 15 per cent more students a year requiring assistance with the emotional experience of stress, of being worried,” said Janine Robb, U of T’s executive director of health and wellness.

“Many are having emotional experiences they aren’t used to feeling, partly because we don’t allow young people to feel sad or uncomfortable; we make it all good for them. Then they get to university and Mom and Dad aren’t around.”

Students also sometimes think they have a clinical problem when they really just need tips on how to calm down and work out their problems. “They talk about having an anxiety disorder, but if we can dial that language back, it’s sometimes just nervousness or worry or they’re stressed out,” said Robb.

“Mental health is the banner issue of our generation,” said fourth-year U of T student and Rhodes Scholar Kaleem Hawa of Trinity College, where students voted to pay an extra $5 each per year toward the cost of the embedded counsellor. A recent $1.5 million donation made it possible.

“Stress is being exacerbated by the fierce competition for university and jobs, but technology has had an effect too,” said Hawa, 21. “We need a replacement for being on the computer because we’re making more friends, but they’re shallower. And we’re more isolated than we’ve ever been.”

But in many ways, student stress is a reflection of a larger, distracted, over-stimulated society, says Victoria College’s Kelley Castle, “so we’re trying to calm the culture and create a place where people talk face-to-face, a climate of conversation,” she said. “It’s like emotional CPR.”

That’s why George Brown College student mentor Gemeda Beker plugs in his kettle in the hall by the library three times a week to offer frantic students “Tea with G” — with a dash of advice, a sympathetic ear and a spoonful of human connection.

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