Reprinted from the "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 4 (3)
Many people look back on their college or university career as the best years of their life. But what often gets overlooked is just how stressful student life can be. For many students, the transition to college or university means separating from family and friends, sharing close living spaces with strangers, forming new relationships, responding to intense academic pressure and balancing work against other responsibilities such as jobs.
The challenges students face can be extremely stressful. In one study, 40% of the students surveyed on campus reported feeling frequently overwhelmed.1 Depression rates among students were higher than in the general population and suicide was the second leading cause of death among students.1 People under stress are at much higher risk of developing mental illness, and students are no exception.
So, what do these startling statistics mean? Are students doomed to crumble under stress and become vulnerable to mental health problems? The answer is a resounding no. There are a number of things that can help protect students from stress.
It starts with the basics of self-care: eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and setting aside time to relax and do what you enjoy. Then there are the not-so-basic things such as learning how to budget and manage debt, developing effective study habits and problem-solving skills, discovering your sexual identity, and becoming clear about your spiritual beliefs.
The most powerful weapon of all against mental troubles, however, is having solid social support. Establishing and nurturing positive relationships with family, friends, professors and the larger university community increases not only a sense of belonging, but it also increases self-esteem and boosts mental well-being.2
What’s in a friendship? Let’s look at the pluses
Friendships are the cornerstone of social support and the key to helping students deal with the stress of university. A friend can act as a role model, listener, adviser, critic and companion. He or she can offer you acceptance and reassurance, lend a helping hand or a sympathetic ear, give good advice and guidance, and make you feel like you belong. Having a close friend will make you feel loved and cared for, and make you less likely to crash if you fall. Finally, friends help you manage stress by providing fun, which acts as a distraction from the stress of academic work.
Your campus friends are probably experiencing similar problems. Once you see this, you may be less likely to put unnecessary pressures on yourself or to think that your experience is abnormal. By sharing with a friend just how stressed you feel as a result of university life, you may help each other cope better.
Given all the great benefits of having friends, it is extremely important for students to build anew their network of friends while in university and to keep an open mind when meeting new people. The more open minded you are, the more friends you’re likely to make. And the more friends you make, the more they are likely to introduce you to their other friends.
Making friends doesn’t need to be a lot of work. It could be as easy as reaching out to a person in your class or place of residence, or joining a school club, sports team or committee where you’ll meet like-minded people. After all, university is a great forum for finding people that share the same interests, values, sense of humour, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, musical tastes or hobbies.
As you become more intimate with your new friends, you’ll be able to discuss more sensitive topics with them, which will strengthen your bond.
On-campus social support boosts
If you are unsure about how to start getting the social support you need, consider attending one of the new support groups offered by some schools for new students. These groups are made up of other new students and a coordinator. They meet to discuss the ups and downs of university experiences and to talk about how to deal with school stress. The sessions are designed to accomplish several goals:
to help students develop realistic expectations about what university life is like
to assist them in developing strategies to deal with difficulties they are facing
to normalize their concerns by hearing that other group members are experiencing similar difficulties
to provide them with information about campus resources (e.g., student counselling, career services) that can help them
to give them a sense of belonging and support by being a member of a group
Online social networking can help
You might also be surprised to find that keeping in touch with others through online social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster can help you build a stronger support network.3 These sites are especially useful, because they allow their users to interact with people they already know (high school friends who now live at a distance, or new classmates), as well as to meet new people.
These SNSs lower the barriers to social participation and encourage students to share useful information, organize groups or form personal and professional relationships. And contrary to popular beliefs, online interactions do not necessarily remove people from their offline world.3 They can even be used to support relationships and help people keep in touch, even when life changes keep them apart.
An important thing to remember is that social networking sites work best when they are used to solidify existing relationships; they’re not the most effective way to create intimate friendships.3 Once you have connected with someone online, you need to put in some ‘face time’ to make your friendship with them flourish.
There is also a risk of addiction due to overuse. SNS sites are best used in moderation. It is also crucial that you become engaged in university life in other ways. Getting involved in campus life through volunteering, joining student societies and attending campus clubs can enrich your university experience, help you connect with others and help you discover new things about yourself.
Reach out. Get involved. But start small, start slow
Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that getting this social network in place might be a tall order for students who are overtired, stressed and perpetually running out of time. But you need not accomplish everything overnight. Start by making small changes and remember that you not alone.
Reach out. Let a friend help you through your stress.
About the authorSaman is completing her undergraduate interdisciplinary arts degree at the University of British Columbia. She is currently the Public Education and Communications Assistant at Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Divison.
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2003). Depression, substance abuse and college student engagement: A review of the literature. New York: Author. www.bringingtheorytopractice.org/pdfs/LitReviewDec03.pdf.
Buote, V.M., Pancer, S.M., Pratt, M.W. et al. (2007). The importance of friends: Friendship and adjustment among 1st-year university students. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22(6), 665-689.
Ellison, N.B., Steinfield, C. & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends”: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), article 1. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html.