College Freshmen Need a Class on Mental Health


This is the second installment of my weekly column for the Daily Northwestern. Check it out in its original here.

As college students, we’re intimately acquainted with stress. Everyone feels it, often on a daily basis. We juggle classes, jobs, extracurriculars and social lives, and the stress we feel means we’re pushing ourselves to succeed. However, for increasing numbers of students, the stress has become unbearable.

Here are some statistics for you.

According to a study of 200,000 students, only about half of college students say they have “above average” mental health, which is unusual since people tend to overestimate how above average they are. (Google “Lake Wobegon Effect” or “illusory superiority” if you’re curious.) In 1985, it was 64 percent.

According to an Associated Press and mtvU survey, one-third of college students say they use drugs or alcohol to relax. One-fifth say they feel stress all or most of the time.

Feelings of stress only increase as we progress through college. According to the mtvU survey, almost 30 percent of freshmen say they’ve felt so stressed that they didn’t know how to pull out of it. By sophomore year, almost 60 percent of students say so.

Ten percent of college students say they’ve considered suicide just in the past year. For Northwestern, that means 900 undergraduates.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Making college easier obviously isn’t an option. But I don’t think it’s okay for things to be the way they are.

I propose that freshmen be required to take a class about mental health and stress management. Perhaps it could count as a distribution credit for ethics and values or social and behavioral sciences. This class should cover the basics of dealing with stress, sleeping well and knowing when to get help. It should be taught by personable faculty members or by Searle or CAPS staff. It should provide time for discussing students’ difficulties as they experience them, sharing each other’s coping strategies and perhaps some meditation lessons. It could be — dare I say it? — fun.

Why should this class be required? Well, for starters, because most students can’t predict whether or not they’re going to experience debilitating levels of stress someday. And because, when given the choice, people like to pretend they’re perfect and don’t need any help with personal problems like stress management. And because Northwestern requires students to learn about math, art and writing, but not about something that could one day save their lives.

A class like this could have benefits that reach far beyond its syllabus. Since class sections would have to be small to facilitate the right environment, students would make friends and get to know a faculty member. Unlike most academic courses, a class like this would jumpstart discussions about deep, personal topics and forge closer friendships than any other class could. Forming connections with professors is one of the best ways to ensure a good college experience, and it’s often hard for freshmen since they have to take large classes. Sharing rather personal things with each other brings people together, and students would come to realize that, despite what it may look like, they’re not the only ones who feel overwhelmed sometimes.

As we love to remind each other and ourselves, we’re all adults here. Our culture doesn’t emphasize mental health; it emphasizes productivity and perfection, so stress management isn’t something we learn unless we make the effort. As we start college, we’re at one of the most vulnerable points of our lives — freshmen have to adjust to an increased workload, a new physical environment, different social norms, greater financial stress and homesickness. We’re used to thinking of stress as something unavoidable, a necessary evil that we have to live with to do well in college. A class like this may not cure us of stress entirely, but it could make our years at NU happier, healthier and more productive.

Comments

  1. says

    As someone who works with stress on a daily basis. I am a Massage Therapist(and business owner), I couldnt agree more. I would take it a step further though, we should be teaching this stuff as early as grade school along with relationship and financial planning 101. :)

  2. says

    “Our culture doesn’t emphasize mental health; it emphasizes productivity and perfection, so stress management isn’t something we learn unless we make the effort.”

    – Oh, how I agree! This is a skill many people are not even aware exists, so they don’t try to develop it.

    Brilliant article!

    • says

      Thank you!

      Sometimes I feel like I’m the only student here who isn’t constantly feeling like the stress is going to kill me. Yet I take more classes than most other people, do more extracurriculars, have two part-time jobs, maintain a high GPA, sleep a full eight hours every night, AND still hang out with friends several nights a week. So clearly, there’s a way. It just took me way longer to learn it than it should’ve.

  3. says

    Well, there are several reasons. After reading much of your stuff I have seen reference to your depression on several occasions. Touch is intergral to human health and there are studies that show the negative affects when we are devoid of this. North Americans in general are touch phobic. Massage therapy is a great way to help this. Also massage directly affects your central nervous system and is stellar for helping the body heal itself. Considering the stress levels of the average individual in todays day and age massage is an excellent way to help combat that. There is a joke I made in relation to this. “It was a massage therapist who invented the computer, looking for ways to drum up business.” ;)
    From a mechanical perspective massage directly affects the working systems of the body. Muscle, tendon, connective tissue, lymphatics, blood flow….etc. If you tune your car up regularly dont you think its prudent to “tune up” the vehicle(your body) considering that it takes you through life. Another reason is that considering you are an aspiring Psychologist(health care provider) I am amazed that this is not a tool in your workbox for your potential new clients and most importantly, yourself. :)
    I highly recommend you trying a succession of 3 massages of 1hr duration over a 2 week period. At the end of those sessions you will probably understand what I mean. :)

  4. says

    Oh, productivity. The bane of procrastinators everywhere. :)

    You make a very good point-the only way we’re really taught how to reduce stress is to finish the to-do list. But compound that with the need to always be productive, that to-do list never ends.

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