College Students

Mental health problems can affect many areas of students’ lives, reducing their quality of life, academic achievement, physical health, and satisfaction with the college experience, and negatively impacting relationships with friends and family members.
Being a student can be stressful enough, but trying to juggle schoolwork and other responsibilities while experiencing mental illness can make it that much harder. But students can work through many challenges and still perform well in school.

Student Guide To Coping With Emotional Crisis

By: Kim Maertz, Ph.D., R. Psych. UHC-Student Counselling Services University of Alberta

This guide was specifically designed to help you, as a University student, cope with an emotional crisis which may occur as part of your university experience or as a part of the unpredictability of life. A crisis may be precipitated by any number of potential unforeseen events including a death in the family, a violent crime, an accident, a sexual assault, sexual abuse, a natural disaster, a suicide, or violence on campus, just to mention a few. Other less obvious situations may also be perceived as a crisis, depending on how they are interpreted by each person. Some examples here include the ending of an intimate relationship, receiving a very poor grade, losing a friendship, being asked to withdraw from university, parents divorcing, or the loss of a job.

Many circumstances and events can precipitate a crisis and it is one’s reaction, rather than the event itself, that defines it as a crisis. A crisis is created by an event which temporarily overwhelms our coping resources. During a crisis people tend to react in a number of ways. Some of the more typical responses to crisis include:

Emotional Responses:

  • Shock, denial or disbelief
  • Depression
  • Fear (for yourself or others)
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Anger or irritability
  • Hopelessness or helplessness
  • Guilt and shame
  • Loss of motivation
  • Grief
  • Numbness

Cognitive Responses:

  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Problems making decisions
  • Confusion
  • Self-doubt
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares about the precipitating event
  • Flashbacks about the event

Physical Responses:

  • Stomach problems (i.e. nausea)
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating or chills
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Chest pain

Behavioral Responses:

  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Deterioration of personal hygiene or dress
  • Inability to relax
  • Reduced sexual interest
  • Emotional outbursts (i.e., crying, giggling)

You do not need to have all of these indicators to be considered in crisis, but some of these from each category are anticipated. Being able to identify yourself as being in crisis is important so that you can make a good decision on how to best manage your response.

Continue Reading: Student Guide to Coping with Emotional Crisis

Students Returning to School After a Suicide Attempt

Students who have felt so helpless and hopeless to have made a suicide attempt have many challenges to face. The problems that led to their suicide attempt are still there, and now on top of that they have to deal with having been hospitalized for the attempt. Peers are not often kind to those who return to school following a psychiatric hospitalization. Although we are trying hard to reduce the stigma around mental illness, it is still a stigma for many who get admitted into a psychiatric hospital as opposed to a drug or alcohol rehab.

The school faculty and staff may also not know how to be supportive to the returning student. Many staff can be insensitive and say thoughtless things that other students may overhear in the office or hallways. Many staff hold outdated beliefs about mental health treatment which may not lead to the most positive climate for the student. Still other staff, who are knowledgeable about mental health issues and who themselves may have or know others in their own life with mental illness, may be the most compassionate.

How school staff can help:  Coming back to school after a traumatic absence is difficult for students, but returning after a suicide attempt is quiet challenging, especially if everyone knows. Try to give the student as much control as possible over the situation. Meet with the student before her return to school, plan together what she does and doesn’t want you to say and to whom. Practicing role playing so that she can try out different responses to different situations that may arise will help lower her anxiety. Teaching her to say, “I don’t want to talk about it” gives the student permission to be as private as she would like to be about the circumstances regarding her absence as needed.

You may want to ask the student (and parents) for permission to let some of her teachers and some students (that may be in clubs or sports )with her, to know how she wants to be treated. It is also important that the student’s counselor gets consent to read the student’s discharge plan and recommendations as well as to speak with the outside therapist. This helps the student by building a safety net for her.

The return to school requires individualized attention and regular follow up. If the attempt isn’t public knowledge, not everyone in the school needs to know the details around the student’s absence. Faculty and staff who have direct contact with the student, should be part of her safety net that monitors continuing risk. Giving instructions to those members of the staff about how they can be most helpful to the student will benefit both the student and staff. Here are some ideas:

  • Treat the student’s return to school as you would had the student been out sick for a few days.
  • Let the student know you are glad they are back, “Good to see you”.
  • Please respect the student’s wishes for the way in which his absence is discussed. If the attempt is common knowledge, help the student prepare by role-playing comments and questions from peers or faculty or staff. If no one is really aware, help the student create a short response to explain her absence. Being prepared helps greatly reduce anxiety and helps the student feel more in control.
  • Discuss missed classwork and homework and make arrangements for completion. Adjust expectations for the first days and weeks. Let her know that she can come to you for help with the work or assign a student to help her catch up. Some teachers will give a project or a take home assignment for the student to do instead of trying to make up all of the missed homework.
  • Keep an eye on the student’s academic performance as well as her social interactions. If you see that she is isolating or being shunned by peers or is falling further behind in assignments you can follow up with the students and other teachers as well.
  • Pay close attention to further absences, lateness and requests to be excused during classes. If you are concerned please alert the  appropriate staff resource at your school.
  • Encourage the student to use the school resources for additional support (school counselor).
  • Always provide regular feedback to school resource staff.

Guides for College & University Students

The American College Health Association (ACHA) reports that any number of factors — chronic pain, allergies, gaming, excessive Internet use, relationship problems, gambling — can affect academic performance. However, psychiatrically or medically diagnosed challenges such as stress, anxiety and depression generally have a greater impact, and may require more a thoughtful approach to guidance or treatment. These conditions may hinder students from excelling on tests, completing assignments or even making it to class. In extreme cases, students may even drop out of school.

This guide is dedicated to helping those who are suffering or have suffered from depression, suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. It is also designed for concerned friends and family members who might be worried that someone they love will experience death by suicide. Finally, it is meant for students, so that they might spot the warning signs of suicide in others – or in themselves – and find the proper resources.

Additional Resources for College & University Students

Mental-health counselling and referral service for post-secondary students. Available in English, Chinese and Punjabi. Free, confidential counselling by app, phone or online chat, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Toll-free: 1-877-857-3397

Dedicated to the mental health of college students, this organization serves as the young adult voice in mental health advocacy on more than fifty college campuses.

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ULifeline is an anonymous, confidential, online resource center, where college students can be comfortable searching for the information they need and want regarding emotional health.

Critical Mental Health Resources for College Students. This resource is meant to provide college students and young people with quality information on maintaining good mental health and identifying mental health issues.

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