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Students advised to create community, reach out for help in dealing with stressors amplified by COVID-1.April 9, 2021

When COVID-19 hit last year, college students across the country—including those at WPI—had already been facing a list of stressors impacting their mental health. Throw a pandemic into the mix and anxiety, stress, and depression have seemed to increase. 

To help the WPI community better understand and address this important issue, Student Mental Health: Surviving Isolation, Stress, Depression, and Anxiety, the latest in the Critical Conversations series, was held virtually on April 7. This multi-disciplinary panel shared ways students can not only alleviate their own stress, but also reach out to their peers and build trust and community. 

“I am grateful to be able bring this panel to you,” moderator Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, said at the beginning of the program, adding that over the past 18 months, students have been struggling more than ever with these issues. “We want to make sure that you understand student mental wellness. That’s what we’re striving for.” 

Panelists included Charlie Morse, associate dean/director of counseling at WPI; Angela Rodriguez, assistant professor of social science & policy studies; Dr. Kerry-Ann Williams, medical director of the Justice Resource Institute; and WPI students, M. L. Tlachac, a PhD candidate in the data science department; and Robbie Starr ’21, electrical & computer engineering.

Stress has been increasing among students 

Morse, who’s worked at WPI for the past 28 years, kicked off the talk by sharing national data related to students and mental health, including “some pretty alarming rates” of depression and anxiety over the past six years. In 2013, according to trending data from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 31.3 percent of students across the U.S. felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, a number that climbed to 45.1 percent in 2019. In 2013, 51 percent of students said they felt overwhelming anxiety, which jumped to 65.7 percent in 2019. 

Morse said that the number of undergraduate students seeking mental health help at WPI has increased each year, from 628 in the 2015-16 school year to 900 in 2018-2019, which he said could be attributed not only to increasing distress among students but to a reduction in stigma around seeking help. 

“There’s been a lot of loss this past year on so many levels,” Morse said, adding that the Student Development and Counseling Center staff have been extremely busy supporting students remotely and expect the need to increase as students continue to process the trauma.

Rodriguez, who researches stress, said that nine times out of 10, students at WPI say their exams are their top stressor. Add the pandemic, their workload, and thinking about their futures, and “college students are really, really stressed out,” she said.

While there are barriers to cultivating mental wellness—such as feeling too busy, or not having the enough money to pay for therapy outside of WPI and/or for exercise classes (which can help alleviate stress)—Rodriguez said one of the fundamental goals is to help students overcome these barriers and to shift the culture from all-night study sessions being the norm to understanding that getting enough sleep is important. 

Williams, a psychiatrist and host of a radio talk show, Black Mental Health Matters, said that the biggest issue for students is that if people close to you point out that you’re not acting like your usual self, “you should pay attention to that.”

While “we’re taught to take pride in going it alone,” Williams said reaching out for help or deciding to talk to a counselor is “more of a mark of bravery” than a sign of weakness. 

WPI students share their experiences 

According to Tlachac, graduate students have to balance so much more thant their studies, which could include research, work, volunteerism, caretaking, and the usual responsibilities that come with being an adult, such as paying bills. “Each of these roles brings in unique stressors,” Tlachac said, adding that students need to remember “to do human things,” such as eating, sleeping, and socializing. 

Starr, a senior, said that WPI is a place that can be very difficult sometimes. “There’s so much pressure on students to perform here,” he said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of success. Your presence here, that in and of itself, is valuable.” 

Both students said the key to improving student mental health is to start talking about it and building community. “Talking is a first step in creating a healthier community and more understanding,” Tlachac said. “It’s so important just to start talking and making it known that it’s OK if you’re not always OK.” 

Starr’s advice to students is to start using more intentional language when talking to friends and peers, asking, “How are you feeling?” versus “How are you?” which can lead to more open and meaningful conversations. He said students can get connected through the SDCC Student Support Network and SDCC support groups. 

How WPI is tackling mental health 

Rodriguez noted that there are classes related to mental health in the Psychological Science program and that WPI started a Be Well initiative on campus that offers free yoga and meditation classes and wellness talks. “That’s one of the ways the community has stepped up to offer wellness resources,” she said. 

Morse said the Counseling Center hosts training with faculty, staff, and students, but that “more could be done.” He added that he’d love to see some student projects related to the center and to hear more direct student feedback. 

What parents can do 

When students say they’re feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, the first thing parents should do is be supportive and validate those emotions, according to Williams. The next step is to ask if there’s a time you can talk and work together to create some balance, “letting your child lead.” 

At the end of the talk, King said that she would love to create a support group for parents to help each other, adding that anyone can reach out to her with concerns. 

“This is a family,” she said. “We’re here for you.” 

– By Melanie Thibeault

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