Freshman stress prompts universities to offer more help

The young woman in the prom dress scrubbed her clothes repeatedly in the dorm laundry room, mumbling to herself about finishing a master’s thesis.

But the 18-year-old had neither a prom to attend nor a master’s thesis to write. She was a University of Dallas freshman who had two weeks left before finals.

She was experiencing freshman stress to the extreme, a problem that’s not new but is getting more attention than ever.

Universities everywhere are taking steps to identify and help troubled students and to teach all students how to cope emotionally and physically so the pressure of college doesn’t drive them out of school or into mental illness.

The University of Dallas in Irving this year started training resident assistants to help students. Other universities have added counselors and nutritionists.

“A lot of colleges used to have the attitude with students, ‘If you don’t do it, that’s your problem,’ ” said Karen Levin Coburn, an assistant vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Today’s College Experience.”

“Now, there’s much more of an attitude, ‘We’ve brought you here, and we know you can succeed here, and we’re going to give you the support,'” Coburn said.

The newest addition to prevent stress at Washington University is an office on health promotion and wellness. The medical school runs lectures for students to show them what happens when they don’t get enough sleep. A nutritionist warns about how too many cookies and pizza can affect the psyche, too.

“It’s really the basics,” Coburn said. “One major issue for college students is sleep deprivation. When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel stressed.”

The University of Dallas last school year referred more than 40 students, a record high, for counseling. Most of them were among the school’s 300 freshmen; UD has about 1,200 undergraduates. Eight to 10 students went to hospitals for psychiatric treatment.

In the past, three or four UD students were hospitalized per year, said Fred Zuker, the school’s vice president and dean of student services. Many students came to school with diagnosed mental illnesses, but others simply succumbed to more stress than they could handle.

Freshmen tend to be in the worst straits, and college seniors, who worry about what’s next after graduation, come in second on the stress scale, Zuker said.

Christina Dammen, an 18-year-old University of Dallas freshman from San Francisco, is working six hours a week. After about a month of college, she said she’s already stressed and short on sleep from juggling fun, work and classes. She goes to bed about 2 or 3 a.m., and then must get up for an 8 a.m. class.

“There’s a lot of reading, plus there’s the fact that it’s one big sleepover,” Dammen said. “People are coming into your room constantly.”

Colleges have long needed to do more to respond to freshman stress, said Linda Sax, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. Sax conducts an annual survey of freshmen. A recent study of 3,680 students from about 50 colleges indicated that students’ sense of emotional well-being declined through the freshman year.

“Absolutely, we need to pay more attention to students’ psychological well-being and stress. Students tend not to turn to the campus for help,” Sax said. “They tend not to use advisers or counselors. They turn to their friends. The effect of those friends can sometimes be positive or negative.”

At the University of Dallas, part of the solution now is to turn resident assistants, usually upperclassmen who live in and help supervise dormitories, into troubleshooters.

Suzanne Burgess said she felt helpless last year as she dealt with several stressed-out students. It was Burgess’ first year as a resident assistant, and two of her charges talked about suicide.

“I didn’t expect to deal with so many different psychological disorders and stress problems. When you’re in it yourself as a freshman, you’re sort of oblivious to a lot of that,” said Burgess, now a 21-year-old senior in her second year as a resident assistant.

Burgess related the story about the freshman in the prom dress. The student’s problems had been mounting through the school year. Other students would report that she said strange things.

But Burgess, who knew to look out for alcohol and drug abuse but not stress or depression, didn’t become alarmed until the laundry room incident and calls of concern from the student’s parents. The freshman eventually was hospitalized and never returned to UD.

Shortly before school started in late August, Laurie DeKat, UD’s first full-time doctor, trained Burgess and the other resident assistants. She jotted down symptoms of depression and stress on a chalkboard for the students gathered in the lounge of a residence hall.

Southern Methodist University has addressed freshman stress by adding a part-time counselor and extra counseling interns from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said James Caswell, SMU’s vice president of student affairs.

Caswell said it’s clear that students’ anxiety grows during college.

“It grows only because of our society and what the expectations are and what they bring with them, for heaven’s sake,” he said.

James Cannici, director of the student counseling center at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he’s not so sure students are any more stressed now than they were in past decades.

“Young people throughout history have always had a great deal to deal with,” Cannici said. “Becoming a young adult is challenging for any one at any time period. Are there more stresses now? You could make a case for it with terrorism, more broken families, more alcoholism.”

The stress decreases some after freshman year, said David West, a 21-year-old senior and resident assistant. That first year, he was trying to make friends, get good grades and figure out why he was even in college.

“My biggest worry was just being happy,” West said.

DeKat, the physician on staff at University of Dallas in Irving, recently taught resident assistants to be concerned about students’ well-being if they:

* Sleep too much and say, “I can’t get enough sleep.”

* Always seem sad.

* Frequently don’t get up for class.

* Sleep too little because they’re studying and/or partying too hard.

* Drop out of dorm activities, often making statements such as, “Aw, I really don’t feel like going.”

* Have a change in appetite.

* Talk about wanting to stop the pain, a sign that they could be suicidal.

For more information or for help with these or other problems, visit PSU’s new Student Health and Counseling Center in the University Center Building.

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