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Stress rising for college students

John Austin , Knight Ridder

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It’s only midterm, but counselors at Texas Christian University have been busy since early in the semester, helping students who have threatened suicide, mutilated themselves or displayed eating disorders.

“We recognize that a college campus is a pretty stressful place,” said Don Mills, TCU vice chancellor for student affairs. “It is not supposed to be stressful to the point that you can’t complete your work.”

Administrators, counselors and students are having to work harder to guarantee that relief. Stress among college students is at the highest level many counselors have seen in their professional careers, said Gregory Snodgrass, Ph.D., head of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors.

“Stress levels are up on campus,” said Snodgrass, who is also assistant vice president for student affairs and director of the counseling center at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. “We had a suicide this year. St. Mary’s (University in San Antonio)3/8 had one the first day of class.”

Most stressed students don’t commit suicide, but growing financial pressures on students and the presence of more students taking prescription psychotropic (mood altering) drugs are among the factors driving the trend.

“Eighty-seven percent of counselors are seeing more severe psychological problems” according to the 2001 national survey of counseling center directors, Snodgrass said. “That’s been on the increase for the last four or five years.”

Though the number of reported college suicides dropped from 122 in 2000 to 80 in 2001, 30 percent of 274 responding colleges in a 2001 survey reported suicides on campus, compared with 29 percent a year earlier, Snodgrass said.

The number of colleges reporting a suicide has risen steadily since 1998, he said.

The suicide rate at Southwest Texas State hasn’t changed much, but, Snodgrass said, “We did have an increase in the number of attempts this year.”

Campus mental health experts report increases in other stress indicators among students across the country as well.

First-year college students, for example, report feeling overwhelmed more often, according to University of California at Los Angeles researchers who compile results of a national survey.

About 13 percent of male first-year students reported feeling overwhelmed in 1985; by 2001, that increased to about 17 percent, according to an annual study by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

The same study showed the sense of being overwhelmed was even stronger in females, rising from about 22 percent in 1985 to about 36 percent in 2001, according to Jennifer Lindholm, a visiting assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at UCLA who is associate director of the research program.

Among those responding to the survey, the percentage rating their emotional health as above average or better declined from 64 percent in 1985 to 53 percent in 2001.

The findings are part of a survey that has been conducted annually since 1966. It draws responses from more than 700 colleges and universities, polling first-time, full-time students who are typically 18-19 years old.

Leaving familiar surroundings, relatives and friends for school has traditionally been a big, often traumatic move. But these days the changes can be compounded by other factors.

“It’s not just college itself that’s changing, but who’s going,” said Christopher McCarthy, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

More students come from single-parent homes or homes where both parents work, Snodgrass said. In those cases, students and parents often haven’t had much time to discuss dealing with the sorts of stressors that drive students to distraction.

“It’s the lives students are living who are coming to college,” Snodgrass said. “Life is just a lot faster and more complex.”

Because of funding cuts to higher education, more college students are working. And with less funding coming from grants and more as loans, students are faced with debt after graduation.

This comes in an economic environment where job prospects might have diminished significantly since the boom days of the late 1990s.

“Financial pressures have increased significantly,” Snodgrass said.

Also increasingly, students who in the past might not have entered college because of psychological problems are attending.

Of the students advised by college counselors, the percentage who are taking medication to treat psychological problems has increased from 7 percent in 1992 to 18 percent in 2001, Snodgrass said. The medication in many cases has helped them succeed in school but can’t always prepare them for college life.

“They’ve learned to function in a classroom environment,” said Mills of TCU. “They haven’t necessarily learned to live in an independent living situation.”

Educational aspirations are also skyrocketing, with 43 percent of the class of 2001 planning to pursue a master’s degree; 17 percent set their sights on a doctorate degree, Lindholm said.

Those percentages are up dramatically from the early 1970s, particularly for women, but the rise in aspirations can bring added stress levels for those worried about admissions pressures and finances, Lindholm said.

Plus, there are more females on campuses.

More than 55 percent of first-year enrollments are women, Lindholm said.

“Generally speaking, women are more likely to report higher levels of stress,” said Lindholm of UCLA. “But we are more likely to seek counseling.”

As a busy college student, University of Texas at Arlington senior business management student Laurie Urelius knows something about dealing with stress.

The 21-year-old is taking 15 semester hours, working 14 hours a week on campus, participating in two student organizations and occasionally squeezing in some social life.

Time management is a frequent concern for her. To unwind, she occasionally heads to the mall for a little therapeutic shopping, she said.

“I try to just get away for a day, even though everything is still here,” she said.

Kenneth L. Farr, UT-Arlington counseling services director, said walk-in counseling is available Mondays through Fridays. Officials and counselors are discussing ways to make more after-hours counseling available, Farr said.

TCU offers a range of programs and personnel designed to heighten sensitivity to stress and deal with its effects, said Mills, the vice chancellor for student affairs

At the University of North Texas, counselors are on call 24 hours a day, said John Hipple, a senior counselor at the Denton campus.

Hipple and five fellow professional counselors train residence hall personnel to raise awareness of danger signs. Expressions of suicidal impulses are taken seriously.

“There is no such thing as confidentiality when someone is thinking about killing themselves or someone else,” Hipple said. “If we hear that someone’s moved thinking to action, intervention jacks up.”

If deemed necessary, counselors will refer students to psychiatrists at the campus health center, Hipple said.

Counselors can’t make stress disappear, but they often can make all the difference to overwhelmed undergraduates

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Stress rising for college students