The Collegian
Thursday, February 22, 2024

Academic stress among leading reason students are seeking mental health support

<p>The entrance to Counseling and Psychological Services in the Well-Being Center.</p>

The entrance to Counseling and Psychological Services in the Well-Being Center.

Editor's Note: Resources for UR students include CAPS, at CAPS@richmond.edu or (804) 289-8119. The emergency line is (804)289-8911.

The University of Richmond CAPS office sees around 850 students each year, the most common reasons are anxiety and academic stress. 

Peter LeViness, former director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UR said
students also visit for CAPS depression, relationship problems and family concerns. 

Students today can sometimes struggle with navigating their studies, societal pressures struggles at home and social media, leading college campuses to focus their attention on students' mental health as critical levels of college students seeking mental health support increase. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for having at least one mental health problem. The stigma surrounding mental health continues to drop and the number of students seeking help increased by 40% from 2009 to 2015. 

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students, with roughly 1,100 of the United States’ 47,646 suicides each year occurring on college campuses, according to a national study done by the University of Michigan

In his 21 years at UR, LeViness has seen a large increase in people coming into CAPS looking for support, he said. The percentage of student body consulting with CAPS  has increased from 20% to 60%. 

“I think it's because of reduced stigma,” LeViness said. “That's why you all have heard, probably since day one, that it's okay to ask for mental health help. And it's just like any other kind of health concern, and why don't you go do it? When I was in school, I vaguely knew we had a counseling center.”

The main source of student stress is academics, LeViness said. Citing limited opportunities to take pass/fail courses and the increased pressure to enroll in five credits a semester, LeViness said staying on top of coursework caused anxiety for many students. 

The transition to college for many students can be difficult. Balancing coursework, relationships and adjusting to campus life can lead to increased stress levels among students  

“Coming to Richmond, for me, there was a heightened sense of anxiety, specifically social anxiety,” Caitlin Weigert, ‘23 said. “I did increase my medication dose before coming to Richmond, but I was worried that I was going to have trouble making friends or fitting in.” 

Weigert was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and mild depression disorder in 8th grade. 

“That sense of belonging was always a source of anxiety for me, so, of course, college was difficult with that,” Weigert said.

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While LeViness acknowledges that academic competition and heightened workload are areas UR should work on to reduce student stress, he credits UR with creating spaces on campus where students can find academic support and a sense of community.

“I think the school does a good job providing a lot of safety nets,” LeViness said. “So on the positive side, I think to have a speech center, a writing center, a tutoring center, an LGBTQ Campus Life Center and Center for Student Equity and Inclusion. A lot of schools don't have one or more of those offices.”

Despite the amount of resources available to students, some feel that the conversation surrounding mental health is still not entirely transparent within the UR campus and college campuses nationwide. 

“I think that mental health, especially among men, is not discussed a lot in the broad sphere, especially on college campuses,” sophomore Tim Khoh said.

Others feel that young people, specifically college students, undergo heightened pressure to hide their mental health struggles. 

“Initially, when I was first diagnosed, I thought it was embarrassing to go to therapy and hash out all your problems,” Weigert said. “But after going through therapy for a while, I realized that I am not alone and that most people have some sort of anxiety or depression,”

According to the UR CAPS website, over one-third of UR students use CAPS services at least once before they graduate. Resources are advertised during new student orientation, wellness programs and around campus on school-wide televisions. 

“I think they definitely advertise all the help resources on campus so many times your [first] year. I think for me, it was just the fear of asking for help,” Weigert said. “I didn’t know how to get started. It was really scary to reach out to someone for the first time. It’s always scary to admit that you need help.”

Although resources are readily available, it can often be difficult to take the first step toward finding help. If students are concerned about a peer who may benefit from mental health services, there is a link on the CAPS website that allows them to submit a concern about a fellow student.

“Alerting CAPS to a friend or classmate who is struggling can make a huge impact in someone’s life. You never know what someone is going through, and one simple action could save a life, junior CAPS intern Lydia Baer said.

On the CAPS website, or in person, UR students can schedule one-on-one meetings with a trained and certified counselor from the CAPS office, as well as crisis appointments if needed. 

Baer emphasized that CAPS offers multiple options to fit the needs of every UR student.

“I came from a school as a transfer student that had really poor CAPS funding and services, so I'm always blown away by how much time, energy, and funding goes into CAPS here,” Baer said.

If a student is interested in improving their skills in a particular area, CAPS also offers specialized group programs that address topics such as stress management, navigating grief and loss and dealing with strained family relationships, Baer added.

“These skill-building programs are really unique to Richmond and incredibly helpful in my opinion. I have friends who have done them and have had really positive experiences,” Baer said.

Weigert, who has used the resources available through CAPS, said they have been helpful in improving her mental health.

“I think that CAPS is fantastic. I love every single appointment I have had there,” Weigert said. “I think that everyone in their staff genuinely cares about the student but as a person not just as a student.”

At the start of her time at UR, and before discovering the CAPS office, Weigert, like many incoming first-years, had trouble adjusting to college life and struggled to thrive in her new environment. Her friends were worried about her but didn’t know how to help. They reached out to her mom, who then reached out to her Westhampton College Dean. She received a call from the dean and was able to meet with her to figure out a plan, she said. 

“I could see that I could really trust her and she genuinely cared about what I was going through and me as a person and not just another student passing through her door,” Weigert said. “That has made me really comfortable in asking for help or additional support whenever I need it.”

Dean Kerry Albright Fankhauser reached out to CAPS on her behalf to set up meetings and emailed all of her professors on behalf of the Dean’s office. She has since established a relationship with her Dean, she said. 

“It’s been really helpful knowing that I have that external resource and I have talked to her several times throughout my four years, and she has stepped in when I needed additional support or someone to talk to,” Weigert said. “Now I am less scared of reaching out and asking for help because I have established that connection.”

While CAPS aims to adequately support every student, there are some barriers that still need to be lifted, Khoh said. 

“I have heard, as someone in student government, complaints or comments from different students with difficulties with CAPS, so there is definitely reform or edits needed to be made there,” Khoh said.

Currently, the CAPS office has limitations on the frequency with which students are able to meet one-on-one with certified counselors. Students are scheduled for bi-weekly appointments with a maximum of eight appointments before they are referred to an off-campus resource.  

“I know it would be helpful to a lot of students if there were enough counselors, or enough available counselors, that they could meet weekly for an indefinite amount of time,” Baer said. 

As an outlet, many students, such as Khoh, have turned to the gym as emotional well-being and physical health are fundamentally linked. Exercise is a form of stress management for many students. 

One of the ways that Khoh has found most beneficial to maintaining his mental health is working out in the gym, he said.

“It's part of my routine. It's ritualistic for me. It definitely helps my mental health,” Khoh said. “I think seeing the University of Richmond wellness center and the commitment to help benefit students' mental health was very attractive.” 

Physical activity is important for mental health. A lot of students were athletes in high school but don’t set aside time in college to exercise, LeViness said. When it comes to stress management, he recommends they carve out time in their schedules to exercise because it helps alleviate stress. 

“Sleep, exercise, and nutrition are super important for people's mental health. They are the foundations of health. None of us perform at our best in any environment if we aren’t taking care of ourselves,” LeViness said. 

Beyond emotional and physical well-being, the problems facing students often begin in the classroom.

Sometimes UR implements changes they deem beneficial for students without asking their input. The level of academic stress that students experience varies widely depending on professors and course loads, LeViness said. 

“I worry sometimes about certain faculty. There are some faculty that mistakenly equate rigor with giving people more to do,” LeViness said.

In times of academic stress, it is important to check on those around you, LeViness said. Extending a kind word to a friend or helping a classmate in need can be the catalyst that encourages a struggling peer to seek help. 

“I’ve had professors reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, you seemed a little down in class. Is everything ok?’ Their genuine care and overwhelming support has helped alleviate my anxiety,” Weigert said. 

In fostering a culture of compassion and care, students can feel seen, heard and valued for who they are, not just for their academic achievements or extracurricular activities, Weigert said. 

“I know that there are people that, if I ask for help, will help me. I think a lot of it comes down to the incentive of the students. A lot of the time it's down to the initiative of the student to seek those resources out,” Weigert said.

Contact contributing writers Seraina Caviezel at seraina.caviezel@richmond.edu and Reeve Boeckmann at reeve.boeckmann@richmond.edu. Gwen Payne, who is no longer a student at UR also contributed to reporting. 

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