Stretched to the Limit
Students Seek Relief as They Struggle With Stress and Their Mental Health
By Kenna Caprio and Rebecca Maxon
Stress. Support. Pain. Empathy. Trauma. Healing. Isolation. Belonging. Crisis. Therapy. Loneliness. Community. Burnout. Well-being.
According to recent data from a Healthy Minds Study, 44 percent of college and university students struggle with depression, 37 percent experience anxiety, and 15 percent have considered suicide.
Mental health, and how to protect it, is on student minds across the country.
“We live in a really hard time. And it’s really sad. Sexism, racism, ageism, poverty and so much more has had debilitating impacts on our well-being,” says Tiffany Walker, University director of Student Wellness Services, and a licensed clinical social worker. “A part of destigmatizing mental health and encouraging mental and emotional well-being is admitting that and embracing it. Once we give students permission to lean into their humanity, we’re better off. Then they can build community, identify their values and cope with feeling overwhelmed and overburdened.”
At FDU, the goal is to build a culture of well-being for the entire community.
“To succeed, students need so much more from colleges than an excellent academic education. We must work toward creating campuses that are holistic ecosystems of well-being, providing resources, support and a caring environment,” says Michael Avaltroni, FDU president.
“Everyone has stress; stress is a normal part of life,” says Stefanie Ulrich, director of the Center for Psychological Services at FDU, which serves the local community with quality, affordable mental health services. “But, when stress or outside pressures impact our basic sense of well-being and our ability to function as we normally can, we need to make care of ourselves a priority.”
Today’s students face myriad stressors and pressures, some that generations before them have encountered — balancing the demands of academics with social, cultural and financial obligations — but there also seems to be a slew of new issues affecting them.
“Our students are managing real life issues,” says Walker. “It’s important to recognize that socially, economically, politically and culturally there is so much happening in the world without recovery.”
Some students, Walker says, are full-time caregivers to their parents, their children or their siblings. Others work full-time jobs to support themselves or their families, or to cover the cost of college. Still others are learning how to manage family dynamics and expectations with the reality of academic and campus life. Some must arrange travel to and from campus so they can attend class. Others are facing grief, loss, illness or debt. And all of them lived in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and great economic strain.
“My colleagues and I did a review article on the impact that COVID-19 has had on college students at the [pandemic] three-year mark,” says Anthony Tasso, MA’99 (Flor), professor of psychology and deputy director of the School of Psychology and Counseling. “What we found is that the effects of COVID have lingered. Academic motivation has been compromised, as well as emotional well-being, and feelings of anxiety and depression.”
Students are often living on their own for the first time and navigating adult life. They’re coming of age and finding and expressing their identities.
“Talking about emotional pain and checking in with other people about psychological well-being needs to become a more normal part of how people connect and support each other, and asking for help needs to feel safe,” says Ulrich.
Kinzha Iqbal, a graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling, says losing her father to colon cancer was one of the hardest moments of her life. “It was such a sad time, and I didn’t really know or understand how I could move forward in my life without his support. I struggled for a long time, but I did have people around me in the grieving process. I also educated myself on mental health and coping strategies.”
Being by her father’s side during his illness, and seeing other families coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, inspired her to study mental health counseling. “I want to make an impact on other families and address their concerns in a positive way.”
She joined the Transforming College Campuses (TCC) team as a graduate scholar, and is currently embedded in a section of the UNIV1001 class Transitioning to University Life. The graduate scholars function as peer mentors, not clinicians. TCC is a University-wide mental health initiative with several components, all of which directly prioritize a culture of well-being.
“FDU can be a second home for students,” Iqbal says. “It’s a place where they’ll make memories, succeed and grow. Connecting with first-year students as a peer mentor has been incredible. We can guide them to the resources they need.”
A big part of mitigating anxious, depressed, spiraling or suicidal feelings is being able to identify emotions, triggers and needs. Having the language, and the ability to express that language, can enable individuals to build resilience.
“This generation of students already has a lot more knowledge about mental health,” says Maddie Kane, a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program and a TCC graduate scholar. “But they have to feel comfortable to express what they’re going through.”
Students may also need to be guided directly to on-campus support or other immediate resources, like a hotline. And they can benefit from information on low-cost and free self-care options.
Uchenna Baker, vice president for student affairs and Division III athletics, and dean of students, recommends that students “be proactive about self-care and build up the capacity to turn off the noise by doing things that they love to do. Embed self-care as part of your life routine so you can center yourself and prepare for what the world will throw at you.”
Self-care can be as simple and affordable as going for a walk, listening to music, catching up with a friend, taking a relaxing bath or shower, or reflecting on the day.
“Reading a book, exercising, meditating, cooking, listening to daily affirmations and reaching out to family and friends are all options, but everyone is different and so is every situation. Students should explore what works best for them. There’s always something to try,” says Noemie Kloucek, a student in the clinical psychology PhD program, and TCC graduate scholar.
Self-care can also include more structured activities, such as regular therapy sessions or other holistic care appointments.
“Generally speaking, I suggest that folks be kinder to themselves. I encourage them to lean on trusted others when they need to without feeling selfish or burdensome,” Ulrich says. “We live in a fast-paced world in which slowing down to breathe and check in with yourself is difficult for many people. I encourage the folks I work with to give themselves a break from constant stimulation and the demands on their attention to connect with themselves.”
Tuning into their wants, needs, fears and stressors can allow individuals to discover what works for them. “Being more aware of yourself can help you learn self-reliance and allow you to seek moments of joy,” says Iqbal.
But self-care alone isn’t enough. Finding strength and commonality in community can ease societal and existential burdens.
“We must understand where our power and agency lie. We might not be able to immediately change or fix big problems in the world, but we can use our skillsets and passions, and put effort into that. People think about change in a monumental way — needing a large platform or lots of resources, but change happens in small steps,” says Baker.
Get Support Today
The University recognizes the need for comprehensive mental health support and has invested in a number of programs, trainings and offices that promote well-being and belonging.
“The FDU approach is holistic. Life is complex. We’re all under unbelievable stress, and the world feels out of control and chaotic. But we’re here to help support our students and their growth as individuals, so that they can position themselves for the lives they want,” says Benjamin Freer, associate professor of psychology and director of the School of Psychology and Counseling.
Don’t suffer alone. Seek help now.
Student Wellness Services and the Office of Mental and Emotional Wellbeing
Florham Campus: 973-443-8535
Metropolitan Campus: 201-692-2437
“We’re not looking at health challenges or mental health challenges in a silo. It’s total student wellness and well-being, collaborative care that is public health-centered and trauma sensitive and requires collaboration with other departments and agencies,” says Tiffany Walker, University director of Student Wellness Services.
Students can seek acute care, urgent care, referrals, health education, vaccinations, lab testing, counseling and physical examinations, among other services through the department.
“We need to be out in the FDU community so that students know we’re here and so that they can access and utilize our services,” says Krystal Mayers-Pagan, University assistant director of Student Wellness Services. “Through outreach and engagement, we can ask students, ‘What do you need? What additional services do you need to improve your experience here?’” Staff can direct students to counseling services and make an appointment for them on the spot.
“We have to be compassionate and stabilize students by addressing their needs and mitigating crises so that they can show up and be the best version of themselves, pursue academics with success, and maintain a sense of belonging and community,” says Walker.
Transforming College Campuses
For college students to feel connected to academics, athletics and campus life, they need to find and establish a sense of community, belonging and well-being.
The Transforming College Campuses (TCC) program, a multipronged approach
to addressing mental health, zeroes in on building those connections.
“We want students to think about their FDU journey through the words ‘thrive,’ ‘create’ and ‘connect.’ It’s thrive, not survive; create your own legacy; and connect with peers, faculty and staff,” says Kristin Cothran, director of TCC. “Students need to feel supported, valued and appreciated, and to engage in communication.”
A hallmark of the program is having a physical location available to students on each New Jersey campus — on the first floor of Hennessy Hall at the Florham Campus and on the third floor of Robison Hall at the Metropolitan Campus.
Students can congregate in the offices to chat, ask questions or seek resources, or hang out between classes.
“It’s a safe space,” says Maddie Kane, a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program and TCC graduate scholar.
TCC peer mentors are available to answer student questions and guide them to the appropriate resources.
“We talk about academic advising and financial literacy and how to manage school accounts. They’re just starting out and learning about these things as adults. We’re having conversations, sharing feelings and building these skills on the college level. We’re here to help fill in the blanks,” says Sam Ippolito, a student in the clinical psychology PhD program, and TCC graduate scholar. “I wish I’d had something like this as an undergrad.”
Mental Health First Aid
“Students benefit from having caring and committed individuals who are seeing the signs and connecting them with professional resources,” says Chadwin Sandifer, executive associate dean of the School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Mental health first aid prepares people to be a first point of contact for students or community members in need. More than 400 staff, faculty and students have completed the training offered by FDU.
“The earlier you can intervene, the better the outcome,” says Sandifer, who has conducted mental health first aid sessions alongside Dongmi Kim, associate professor of pharmacy practice and director of interprofessional education, and Zakia Clay, assistant professor of social work, department chair and director of the Master in Social Work program.
When staff and faculty are prepared and trained to see signs and symptoms of distress, they can offer better, more targeted support and more quickly intervene before a situation escalates.
“What is an emergency? What do the signs and symptoms mean? What is trauma? Mental health first aiders will learn so they can respond with care. Often it starts with asking a person in distress: ‘Are you okay? Are you safe?’” says Sandifer.
“The hope is to provide community members with the confidence to respond to an initial need, and then call for help or connect a student with the appropriate resources.”
More training sessions will be offered in 2024.
Center for Empathy Training and Research
“There is no more powerful psychological force than empathy for personal and cultural transformation,” says Freer.
The FDU Center for Empathy Research and Training (CERT) combines proven empathy training methods and applied psychological research. The goal is to build greater connectedness in the communities where people teach, work and live.
CERT is built on the proprietary empathy training program developed by Steven Dranoff, CERT co-founder, who has been conducting empathy-based clinical training and research throughout his 40-year career.
“Empathy is the most powerful tool we have to allow people to dispense with roadblocks and connect with and help others,” says Dranoff.
CERT training is available to faculty and staff, with the goal of fostering a consistent culture of empathy within the community. Freer and Dranoff held two-day empathy training sessions last fall with more than 100 attendees.
“When students don’t make it to graduation, that is not a statement about them not caring or being invested,” says Freer. “It is a statement about our ability to support and connect with them to push and foster them forward.”