By Dr. Kim Hellemans, Department of Neuroscience
The increase in mental health problems among university students over the last decade has received considerable attention as of late, both in the academic literature and in the media. Current statistics estimate that approximately one fifth of Canadian university undergraduates experience some form of mental health challenge throughout their undergraduate career.
Since arriving at Carleton in 2008, I too have noticed an alarming trend: each year I see increasing numbers of students in my classes who seem exceptionally challenged by the general rigours of university life¹. Indeed, 60 per cent of students surveyed in a recent national student survey reported “Academics” as having been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.”
I hear many requests from students who wish to receive accommodations – exam deferrals, assignment re-submissions, re-weighting of poor grades – all because they are or have been “too stressed.” A common reason is “too many exams/assignments/essays in one day/week.” I get the sense that some students believe that unless they are feeling 100 per cent, they have the right to take the exam or re-write the assignment under optimum circumstances. Why is this happening?
Of course, there is no one right answer; there are likely multiple factors that contribute to this, not the least of which is the current culture of entitlement. However, my guess is that part of the reason may be an unintended consequence of awareness around mental health.
Over the last decade or so, our society has opened up a dialogue around mental health, both in mainstream and social media. I have certainly noticed that the current generation of students are more open and aware: in my first-year class on the neuroscience of mental health and disease, I hear from many students who are willing to speak out about their own mental health challenges. This is great! Of course, a desired end goal is the eventual societal de-stigmatization of mental illness, which (in my opinion) we are still a long way from achieving.
However, while the awareness around mental health may have permitted some to speak up about their own challenges, it also opens up the notion that feeling sad or stressed is “not normal,” and that stress is a very bad thing. Allow me to elaborate.
Stressors, be they physical (e.g. illness), psychological (e.g. impending exam), real or imagined, serve to signal to the organism that their survival may be at risk. In response to stressors, a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain and the body are released to orchestrate the so called “fight or flight” response.
While these signals are highly adaptive in the short-term, over time the prolonged activation of these systems in the brain and body (i.e., chronic stress) can contribute to disease. Moreover, exposure to acute extreme stress, or trauma (e.g. rape), can also set up the organism for susceptibility to many physical and psychological illnesses, most notably depressive and anxiety disorders.
In this view, one might come to understand that stress is, indeed, a very bad thing. However, both in the neuroscience and psychological literature, there is good evidence that exposure to some forms of stress can in fact have the opposite consequence.
Indeed, the stress inoculation theory argues that exposure to mild to moderate, controllable stress leads to an individual sense of mastery, and promotes resilience in the future³. Studies with rodents and monkeys have demonstrated that when exposed to mild, intermittent stressors (e.g. being separated from their mothers while infants), these animals are not only less stressed when exposed to moderate stressors later in life, but also have enhanced plasticity in key brain regions involved in stress and anxiety regulation.
When our students face similar stressors, such as multiple exams in one day, or juggling the various demands of university life, they are therefore presented with the opportunity to build their own resilience. Critically, facing these stressors, acknowledging and overcoming them, and reflecting on how they coped (or not), literally re-models the brain such that when students might be faced with future stressors, the nervous system is better prepared to not only mount a defence against the stressor, but may also protect the organism from the detrimental effects of stress on disease susceptibility.
Imagine the analogy of weightlifting: with the stress of an increase in the weight of a dumbbell, the bicep muscle literally incurs microscopic tears; these tears, when repaired by proteins, serve to increase the size of the muscle, therefore allowing it to lift heavier weights in the future.
The same principle holds true with the brain: stressors strengthen the brain’s circuitry such that it can become more resilient to the exposure to future stressors. Thus, by avoiding stress altogether (e.g. writing an exam only under “optimal” circumstances), students may be denying themselves the ability to learn how to cope with stress, thus preventing the positive impact of stress inoculation.
What can we, as university professors, do? I believe that there are a number of strategies that we can employ, both in our course design and in our interactions with students, in order to boost resiliency among our students:
- Consider including a short discussion in your first lecture around the challenges of university life (this would be particularly beneficial in first-year courses) and the positive effects of stress. Emphasize that it is normal to feel stressed and occasionally overwhelmed, but that stress is important for motivating the organism and moderate amounts of stress increase performance in some cases.
- If your course has built-in regular assignments or tests, consider offering a ‘best x out of y’ grading scheme. For example, in my first-year Neuroscience course, students have to read 10 Scientific American articles throughout the semester, and answer a question or two based on the article. Each assignment is worth two marks and contributes to 15 per cent of their final grade. However, I tell the students that this will be based on the best eight out of 10 assignments. This allows students to “fail” (i.e., potentially not do as well) in a low-risk environment.
- One of the key factors that seems to be associated with resilience among healthy adults is social support. If your course is not already associated with Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS), consider encouraging peer study groups in your courses, either formally or informally. There are also a number of student-run or student-led resources on campus that employ a peer support framework, e.g. the Science Student Success Centre.
- This may seem simple, but, design assessments that are appropriately challenging. Too easy, and your students will learn quickly not to put in additional effort for your course (and/or perhaps others!); too hard and you risk promoting ‘learned helplessness’ (learning that no matter how hard one studies, it won’t matter). An exam that is just challenging enough will leave many students with a feeling of accomplishment, particularly if they worked hard. Achieving the ‘just-right’ assessment can be tough, especially for first-time instructors or new courses; consider using the EDC support staff to assist you with the development of a rigorous and challenging assessment.
- Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleep and adequate rest are also critical in not only building resilience, but also supporting mental health in general. Find ways to remind students of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, either in conversation outside the classroom, a paragraph in your course outline, or creative insertion of these into your lectures. I have included a “Life Skills with Kim” component to my courses, where I take five or so minutes every once in a while, to provide students with life advice such as “how to keep a healthy brain.” Better yet, be an example to your students and share with them your own lifestyle choices.
- Be informed of all the support services on campus. If you have a student who is genuinely struggling, there are a number of people and places on campus that are far better equipped to assess and (if necessary) diagnose, than we are.
- Lastly, I would discourage anyone from allowing students repeated deadline extensions, exam re-weighting, or term exam re-scheduling. We might think we’re helping (“I’m being nice! The student is struggling!”), but we’re not – we’re teaching the student that not only can they avoid the stressor, but that achievement can only occur under ideal circumstances. This will also not prepare them for success in the work force, where such accommodations are highly unlikely. Resilience is never built under ideal circumstances. As Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
These are only some suggestions – I’m sure there are others. If you have some, I’d love to hear from you!
- I would like to distinguish what some term “academic buoyancy” – the ability to meet deadlines, juggle multiple responsibilities, bounce back from a challenging week of exams – from the stress and anxiety that is experienced by individuals with a diagnosed mental health disorder. I believe these are mutually exclusive. That is, a student can be suffering from an anxiety disorder, but still be able to meet deadlines; by contrast, a student could have no diagnosable mental health disorder, but not meet deadlines. Of course, the two can intersect, which could lead to a host of other issues. In this article, I am referring to a lack of resiliency among students in general, not those with mental health disorders.
- Russo et al., (2012) Neurobiology of Resilience, Nature Neuroscience (15) 1475-1484