by Danielle Smith
Associate Editor for Content
As college students, and humans in general, life consists of numerous experiences ranging from joyous—such as birth, marriage, graduation or promotions—to sorrowful or tough, such as death, debt, relationships or problems with roommates.
All of these experiences can cause strain on a person’s mental health. Once considered a taboo topic, mental health is now discussed on a global scale, helping break down stigmas and stereotypes.
Mental health is an umbrella term for the factors that contribute to a person’s overall mental state, and two of those factors are stress and anxiety.
What is stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety are common, practically unavoidable in a person’s life. That is why it is important to understand the causes, differences and tools used to help cope in these situations.
Dr. Gordon MacKinnon, chair of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences and director of RC’s Psychology and Counseling Center, defines stress as the perception a person has of not having enough resources to cope with a situation, while anxiety is a perceived threat to that person.
“Anxiety tends to interfere with your ability to think...stress seems to be something you can experience at low levels and high levels based on your perception. The question I always ask is, ‘Why do some people get overly anxious or stressed out for the same event and other people are fine?’ It is the perception,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon, who has been with the college for 20 years, has witnessed the differing effects that stress and anxiety have caused various generations. He believes that previous generations had a better way of coping with the stress of college and thinks lack of responsibility could be a factor for current generations, but it may not be the student’s fault.
“There has been many more things put in place that don’t really encourage students to be more responsible for themselves. I think that the newer generation of parents want the best for their kids and try to protect them from things, but one of the things about parenting is that you can’t protect your kids from everything,” he said. “You can’t take away the pain that people have to experience. I think society is much more difficult to deal with than in the past. I know it can be argued, but the world has gotten to be a scarier place and for students looking to their future, you have to have some questions about that.”
A global topic on a small campus
During their time at RC, students will experience common stressors and anxiety triggers, whether that be exams, making plans for the future or living away from home.
Sharia Hays, interim dean of students and Title IX coordinator, said, “You can always kind of predict the time of the year it is based on a student’s demeanor.”
The beginning of the school year is full of excitement as well as homesickness, especially for new students as they attempt to navigate and become part of the campus community. October brings a new level of stress to the community because that is when midterms kick in, Hays said. She views Thanksgiving break as a reboot for the community, allowing everyone to push through finals.
While these stressors have not changed, Hays said she has seen an increase in stress and anxiety levels among students and echos MacKinnon in stating that this generation has a harder time at coping with these stressors.
Referencing the book “iGen” by Jean Twenge, Hays said, “It’s all about the iGeneration student and how much everything is based on the internet and those interactions.” She believes that because of this, some students come to college without having to deal with some of the concepts that past generations had to tackle before going to college.
Hays also said face-to-face communication is imperative to avoiding or overcoming certain stressors.
“You can’t just text stuff over the phone to fix the issue. You have to have a conversation in person...if you are not prepared when you get here [college], that is when we need to come alongside and help you learn those different skills so those stressors aren’t backing up on top of each other,” she said.
What RC is doing
Society is at a unique moment in time where two different generations are coexisting in the confined space of a college campus. While this can lead to differences, Hays is helping to bridge the gap between the generations through RC’s First Year Experience programs, student leadership positions, floor meetings for residents, and programs that encourage one-on-one conversations.
“The nice thing about a small institution is that we have the ability where we can give that individual care factor versus a bigger institution where you can’t go and talk to the dean of students. Here, a student can walk in here and I can figure out how to help them academically, who I need to connect them with if they are going through stress, who I can connect them with psychologically if that’s something we need to go through, so having those conversations,” Hays said.
A more recent component for student support on campus is the Student Care team. Implemented last year, this team consists of faculty and staff who meet with students who may be struggling with stress, anxiety, behavioral or psychological issues. The mentors help students develop a plan of action to be successful and to thrive within the community.
While Hays admits that these programs need more growth when it comes to commuters, she said if anyone will reach out to her or to one of the assistant deans—Scott Cagnet, assistant dean of student engagement, or Chris Shields, assistant dean of spiritual formation—they will address it and make sure to reach out to those who need help.
Campus resources: the clinic
MacKinnon, along with Melissa Schroeder, adjunct professor of psychology, are the two people who facilitate RC’s Psychology and Counseling Center.
Located in Muirhead Center, the clinic is open during the fall and spring semesters, and is used for a variety of reasons: depression, difficulty in school, anxiety or stress.
While the clinic has been in operation since 2005, it is not heavily advertised due to the limited number of therapists and the high demand of students wishing to utilize the clinic. MacKinnon said the administration is aware of the high demand, and acknowledges that there are other offsite agencies to assist students.
For a student looking to utilize the clinic, the first step would be to email MacKinnon to set up a consult. After this assessment, a student would receive the first five sessions free of charge with a $10 payment for every session thereafter. While some students may fall through the cracks or may end up on a waiting list, most people are able to get in fairly quickly, he said.
Tools to use
When combating stress and anxiety, MacKinnon said relaxation training can help students have a break from the anxiety.
“Relaxation and anxiety are incompatible with one another; they can’t coexist. So if you’re relaxed, you’re not anxious; if you’re anxious, you’re not relaxed,” he said.
This can also help a student learn to control their anxious feelings. While MacKinnon uses a particular protocol in office, he suggests that students explore YouTube as well due to the numerous relaxation protocols that can be found on the site.
A student’s perspective
Hannah Saxinger, a sophomore psychology major, has utilized the clinic since her freshman year and believes that it was the right choice for her.
“Once I found out that there was a clinic and that there was someone that I could actually talk to, it was phenomenal. They were really quick about answering me and responding and getting me a place that fit within my schedule,” she said. “It’s really just a very comfortable arrangement...it’s like having a friend who is legally contracted to not talk about these things that you have trusted them with.”
Saxinger said one drawback is the center’s tight, busy schedule. “My therapist told me that there is usually somebody directly after me, so sometimes having that limitation where you have people stacked against each other in a therapeutic setting is kind of bad. When people are going through issues and trying to externally process things, they don’t get to the actual root of the issue until a good way through the actual session itself. So having those confined appointments right up next to each other can take away from a lot of the good that the setting does,” she said.
Outside of the clinic, Saxinger has taken notice of the ways in which the college is trying to create a dialog about stress and anxiety. She credits the Campus Ministry staff for doing much of the groundbreaking. She said mental health is often talked about during chapel, and students are also given opportunities to talk about it through health and wellness programs. Saxinger believes these seminars provide an open setting and a comfortable place for people to go and expand their knowledge regarding overall mental health.
Aside from those stressors and triggers that most college students experience, Saxinger said faculty and students alike need to have a better sensitivity to issues that can be considered traumatic to an individual.
During classes, Saxinger has sometimes been upset about other people’s lack of sensitivity about using certain words or discussing sensitive topics. “I don’t think it is a purposeful insensitivity, but there have been times where I felt like people have definitely overstepped boundaries and caused anxious reactions to happen without concern for the individuals around them,” she said.
Breaking down stigmas
When a student feels comfortable enough to talk about the struggles they may be facing, they tend to turn to people they trust the most—people like their parents. What happens when the people you trust the most are contributing to the problem?
“Older generations will say things like, ‘Well look, back in my day, we just pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and moved on,’ ” MacKinnon said. “Well, they did, but they didn’t do it without some residual effects that they have likely been fortunate enough to keep hidden. But it may catch up.”
Hays encourages students to be vulnerable. “Just be willing to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling.’ Even if your parents don’t really recognize, there are people here where it’s our job to recognize and help you through those things...speak up for yourself, advocate for yourself and say, ‘I am worthy enough to have someone recognize this.’ ”
MacKinnon, Hays and her staff are constantly thinking of new ways to help make seeking help more accessible, whether that be creating a website designated to the clinic, putting stickers on doors to let students know that it is a safe place to talk, or even handing out cards that a student can pick up and give to a faculty or staff member on campus who can help.
The ultimate goal is to make sure that students at Rochester College know that this is a safe place to have these conversations and that students will be listened to, respected and valued.