For college campus administrators & university mental health advocates
College Stress & Mental Health: A Student's Point of View
By: Maria Pascucci, Founder & President, Campus Calm®
I sat upright in the baby blue-clothed, wood-pegged chair, eyes cast down to the blue-speckled berber carpet, then to the man with the gray frayed mustache sitting across from me. He was reading my counseling center intake form.
"3.92 GPA, eh?" he pointed out raising his eyes for a moment to meet mine. He snapped his pen cap back with the tip of his thumb.
"Yeah," I responded, proud despite my sitting in his office.
"Two majors and a minor," he piped back.
"A work study on campus, and a part-time job on the weekends."
"You checked off anxiety, perfectionism, insomnia and stomachaches as your reason for visiting us. Are there any other issues we've left off our list?"
Silence. "Women's health problems, a daily need to ball my eyes out, and a sick pit in my stomach every time I think about what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life, when all I want to do is retire today."
He smiled. "Maria, I'm glad you decided to visit our our campus counseling center. We tend to see a lot of two types of students in our office: the ones who are about to flunk out of college, and the ones near the top of the class."
What about your overachieving students? Are they at-risk, too?
My name is Maria Pascucci and I am a recovering college perfectionist. In 2001, I graduated summa cum laude from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. As the founder of Campus Calm, I deal primarily with stressed-out college women student leaders and the fallout from their over-managed, ultra-achieving, anxiety-ridden lives.
From a college freshman: I made a 4.0 my first semester, and have since been trying mercilessly to maintain it. Now I have regular visits with a therapist and am on two medications for depression/anxiety.
From a senior: Worry over GPA has caused me to suffer stomach problems, headaches, insomnia and panic attacks requiring medication. I am afraid to complete this huge project worth 50 percent of my grade because I'm afraid it won't be ‘good enough.' Why? I have a 3.95 GPA and now I'm terrified of ‘blowing it.' AHAHAH. How can I give this up and not let it rule my life?
According to the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment, stress is the number one life issue that students say affect their studies. Anxiety and sleep difficulties directly follow stress. I offer my perspective as a coach who specializes in empowering women to recover from perfectionism, college speaker and survivor of college mental health challenges. Students nationwide look to me as an advocate when they write to tell me their stories about navigating college while suffering mental health challenges. Your students want me to tell you "the other side of the story," the solutions they crave alongside the statistics and studies.
Here's how you can help:
1. Listen for the warnings. Taryn, a junior pre-med and psychology major at UMass Amherst, wrote, "Maria, I have suffered from perfectionism and anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I have grown to hate college as my academic and work stresses continue to pile up. Despite a 3.99 GPA, I am miserable and feel completely overwhelmed by the demands that I continue to put on myself. Although I have seen a counselor, she actually told me that it was good to keep up my goal of straight A's!... I wish that more professors and professionals fully understood the increasing demands and problems of perfectionism among young women of this generation, and what a miserable prison it can be."
It's not just the young women. Stressed out college men reach out to me every day because they're too ashamed to walk through their campus counseling center doors.
Solution: Tell your students, "Always try your best and be proud of your accomplishments, AND remember that you are ultimately more than the measure of your GPA, or GRE scores." Place the phrase on a billboard in your student union, start a campus-wide text message campaign, anything to spread the message.
2. Tell your students the truth, however controversial it may be. Carrie, a junior at Pace University, wrote: "I started at a community college and my GPA was never below a 3.75…When I would receive my grades, there was never a sense of accomplishment, just a feeling of relief that I made it through another semester. I eventually went on antidepressants and sleeping pills to help with stress. When I transferred to Pace, the anxiety and stress of trying to get good grades became so overwhelming I had my doctor "up" my medication. When I received my final grades I was so disappointed! My GPA was a 3.5. I thought to myself, ‘I will never be able to get into the National Honors Society. I will never be successful in life.'"
Solution: We do not want college and universities to take all the slack for college stress and mental health problems. We know that you're doing the best job you can in a society that glorifies overachievement and rewards academic perfection. We all need to take responsibility though and students will hear the message best if it comes from the educational institutions they attend. Consider publishing an article in your campus newspaper. Tell your student body, "Being perfect in college isn't the gateway to success and happiness; learning and creating relationships are. Building networks and being excited about something does translate into jobs."
Ask students: What does success mean to you? How would your life be different if you earned a 3.2, 3.6 GPA or a 3.9? Why must you be accepted into the National Honors Society to be successful in life?
"America is an end-product society," said Eileen Niland, director and counselor at Canisius College, my alma mater. "We try to get students to focus on the process. College, like life, is a journey and students should ask themselves, "Am I enjoying the ride? Am I learning?' Not 'Will I get an "A" in the course?'
3. Fund prevention. As a national college speaker, I've come to see that counseling centers are among the most understaffed, underfunded departments on campus. They write to tell me that they are ill equipped to deal with the influx of students who are in need of help. Solution: During a recent interview, Madeline Levine, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, said, "For the kids who are suffering, I would like to see more money put into counseling services…Instead of pouring money into buildings and computers - and it's that idea that if you give your kids the right stuff they'll be happier - but it's really about connection with adults who can be helpful to them."
4. Orient students toward help during orientation.
From a high school junior: Grade anxiety has completely taken over my life. During finals week, I suffered a major anxiety attack that caused me to go to the hospital.
Make your campus-counseling center a stopping point during college tours, and during orientation. Give your counseling center staff stage time in front of your incoming freshman class. Your counselors need the opportunity to introduce themselves, and let students know they are there to serve them. Destigmatize talking about mental health as soon as your students arrive on campus. According to an mtvU survey of over 2,200 college students, over 70 percent of students have not considered talking to a counselor to help them deal with stress and other emotional issues since starting college. Solution: Consider telling your students that they have the opportunity to be leaders and change those numbers in the years to come with your help and support.
America needs a cultural shift both inside and outside of the classroom. As a friend once told me, "Accolades and A's are not what life, ultimately, is about."
What Students Want You to Know About Mental Health
I had the opportunity to interview Cassie Riggen, a sophomore at Harrison College in Indianapolis. Listen to what this female student wants college administrators to know about students with mental health challenges.
Q: What would you like administrators to know about students with mental health issues?
A: Not all students handle mental health issues the same. Some shut down while others face problems head on. For example, I have bipolar disorder and at times my stress can get the best of me. I need someone to just listen to me and let me get out whatever it may be that is bothering me. Others however, may need advice, to just work through the problem, or to just take time to themselves. Students have their own way of working through stress.
Q: Have you ever visited your campus-counseling center for a stress-related concern? Was it helpful, why or why not?
A: Yes, I have visited my counselor. I am a bit of an overachiever who panics when I don't completely understand something, since it threatens me getting an A. The counselor sat and listened to my frustrations and once I had calmed down made a few suggestions and directed me to a tutor. She also helped me to understand that I don't always have to get that A, that it should be a goal, not something that is required.
Q: How could college administrators better serve you and your friends to help ensure you have a successful, less stressful college experience?
A: I would suggest that they are open, honest, and always encouraging. I think the best thing for someone who is stressed is just having someone to listen.
Do you resonate with Maria's story? If so, you're the person Maria's speaking to in her book Campus Calm University. It's designed to empower you to give up the exhausting pursuit of perfection (whether it's grades or body), and instead embrace the real steps to success, health, happiness and leadership. Chapters teach you how to be a lifelong learner, infuse your career search with some PG passion, love yourself, embrace risk, focus inward and surround yourself with a network of positive people who can help you reach your goals. And much more too!