Helping Students Cope with Stress

The weeks preceding the holiday saw quite a bit of media attention to practices student affairs professionals have adopted to help students manage the stress and study-load of exams week (for example, this piece in the Boston Globe). A number of colleges are trying "emergency stress relief" techniques such as bringing a masseuse or late-night yoga to the residence halls or offering a midnight breakfast during finals. These practices have become particularly popular over the last couple of years, given concerns over the rising mental health needs of students. The reality, however, is that for stress management programming to be effective, it needs to start with the first day of the term.

We turned to Sherry Benton, director of the University of Florida's counseling and wellness center and co-author of College Student Mental Health: Effective Services and Strategies Across Campus (NASPA, 2006), to learn how institutions can put in place more effective programs to help students cope with exam week stresses and build better coping skills throughout the term.

Benton offers these four tips for making your program effective:

  • Don't wait until end of semester to begin reaching out to students about stress management
  • To the extent possible, offer both good online resources and an array of awareness programs
  • Provide training and a solid resource packet for faculty
  • Use eleventh-hour stress relief exercises or events to both relieve exam week stress and promote your program, prompting students to get an early start on stress management next term

Starting from Day One

"Don't wait until the end of the semester. Get in early, help students engage in good self-care and stress management from the first week. Help them build better habits early in the semester so that they are in a better position to handle stress when finals week does arrive."
Sherry Benton, U of Florida

Noting her research, Benton draws attention to the way students often fail to prepare adequately for end-of-term stress. If students do not practice effective stress management early in the term -- if they lose self-care (sleep, diet, and general wellness) early on -- this has a "cumulative effect" over the course of the term. Providing late-night yoga at the end of the term may help, but ultimately, awareness programming aimed at the first few weeks will help more.

Awareness Program: What to Offer

Starting with the lower-cost option, Benton suggests getting effective online resources in place. Besides including wellness information online, include quizzes, games, and links to free resources outside those developed at your institution. Make the website both informative and fun.

Benton points to the University of Texas at Austin's "Stress Recess" as both a resource to make available to your students and as a model for developing your own online stress management materials. The website includes an entire series of online podcasts and stress reduction exercises, and features both a guided program and an "explore on your own" option.

"Online is the first place students today look. Locate the best resources your peer institutions are using; give them credit, then share those resources. This is almost no time, no cost. Then try a Facebook stress relief page."
Sherry Benton, U of Florida

Offline -- and at higher-cost -- Benton recommends offering "as many options as you can" for students to learn about stress management. Establish yoga groups, mindfulness workshops, and perhaps a biofeedback lab. In other words, give students opportunities to learn the stress management techniques that feel most comfortable to them, in the way that feels most comfortable to them.

Training and Resources for Faculty

Faculty are both most likely to recognize when a student is struggling, and in the best position to promote your institution's stress management resources. Benton recommends offering faculty, at a minimum:

  • A comprehensive but easy-to-use resource packet that outlines what they should do if they are concerned about a student -- for an example, here is the University of Florida's "Students in Distress" guide (pdf link)
  • Workshops that take faculty through scenario exercises

Go beyond offering a brown-bag lunch-and-learn or an informational session; offer a workshop in which a facilitator walks faculty through diverse scenarios, lets them respond, and then gives feedback on their responses. Walk through how to recognize when a student is in trouble, how to approach the student, how to refer them, and how to deal with disruptive students.

In fact, that last item -- how to deal with disruptive students -- may be a good "hook" for drawing the attention of some faculty who would not normally attend a "student stress management" seminar.

Making Good Use of the Eleventh Hour

"Those moments when students are feeling most overwhelmed -- right before finals -- are a great time to promote your stress management programs. This is when you bring puppies from the local shelter into the residence hall. Help them feel better in the moment, and teach them what to do earlier during the next term. Make it fun. Fun and laughter are the best stress relievers."
Sherry Benton, U of Florida

Whatever fun activity you sponsor for the week before finals this term -- whether it's puppies or a midnight pizza delivery -- use this opportunity to give your other stress management resources and activities high visibility, and make sure that you are ready to follow up with students early in the next term.