College Stress 101

June 4, 2003

Stress is a fact of life on college campuses. A study last year by the American College Health Association found 92 percent of college students surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed occasionally by academic demands and one-third said that stress was severe enough to have caused lower grades. 
In addition to academics, other causes of stress for college students include living away from home, financial concerns, relationship difficulties and family issues, says Dr. Glenn Pack, director of Baylor's Counseling Center. 
"College students are faced with major developmental tasks such as deciding about majors and careers and the task of individuation -- essentially deciding who they are," he says.
Added to these expected stressors are factors such as global instability and the threat of terrorism. Dr. Pack says the Counseling Center saw an increase in visits shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and again at the start of military action in Iraq. "Students seem more anxious about the safety of family and friends and express uncertainty about what might happen," he says.
Although it may not be surprising that so many college students feel overwhelmed on occasion, recent research reveals disturbing findings. Dr. Sherry Benton and colleagues at Kansas State University found that college students have more serious psychological dis-orders than in the past. Until 1994, relationship difficulties were the most frequently reported problem among students at the university, but now stress and anxiety are more common. The study, published in the Feb. 3 issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, also found that the rate of depression doubled from 1989 to 2001 and the number of suicidal students tripled (see "Matters of Life & Death"). 
"There is both an increased demand for services and an increase in the severity of diagnoses at our center as well as nationally," Dr. Pack says.
He suggests that societal changes -- including changes in family structure -- may be part of the reason why more students are troubled. Academic demands and the stresses of college life also may exacerbate underlying psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, however, Dr. Pack says students today seem more willing to seek help because of greater awareness of psychological disorders, less stigma related to seeking help and more effective treatment options.
Baylor's Counseling Center is staffed by four full-time psychologists, a part-time psychiatrist and students enrolled in the University's doctoral program in clinical psychology. It offers workshops each semester on stress management, assertiveness training and test anxiety. For more information, call the Counseling Center at (254) 710-2467.

Beal is a lecturer in Baylor's Louise Herrington School of Nursing, where she teaches "The Experience of Illness." She received her BS from Columbia University and her MN from Emory. She is a freelance health and medical writer.