Breathe

Steve Volk, April 23, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Scrolling through radio stations while driving back from a conference in Michigan last week, I happened on a discussion (and performance) of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, which he titled “The Age of Anxiety.” It had been a long time since I last heard that piece – it’s not a part of regular classical playlists – and listening to it made driving the Ohio Turnpike in the snow a tad more bearable.

Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned the piece, which premiered on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony and Bernstein performing the piano solo. The symphony was inspired by W.H. Auden’s long poem of the same name, which the Times Literary Supplement famously dubbed his “one dull book, his one failure.” (OK, so it did win a Pulitzer.) Bernstein’s short but “electrifying” work, written close on the heels of the Holocaust, reflected – he wrote – the “extreme personal identification of myself with the poem, the essential line [of which] is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”

We are again living in an “age of anxiety,” one which tests our search for faith, or understanding, or ideology, or meaning. But, whatever it’s about, it most certainly has been grinding away on our students.

What the Data Tell Us

Let’s start with the numbers, since that’s what we do: marshal the evidence.

Each year, the American College Health Association prepares a National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II) to assist college health service providers, health educators, counselors, and administrators in collecting data about their students’ habits, behaviors, and perceptions on the most prevalent health topics. Among its central concerns are factors which, based on student self-reporting, negatively impact their academic performance (i.e., dynamics that can lead to lower grades, taking an incomplete or dropping a course, etc.). The chart below, from Fall 2017, lists the principal factors in alphabetic order:

American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II)

The top five factors, in rank order, are:

Stress (33.5%)
Anxiety (26.2%)
Sleep difficulties (22.9%)
Depression (17.6%)
Cold/Flu/Sore Throat (14.7%)

In other words, three of the top five factors (and likely, the top four since sleep-related difficulties are often tied to the others) are mental health issues, outranking both more medically related issues (from chronic health problems to sinus infections and colds) as well as “time-management” issues (internet use; extracurricular activities).

Digging deeper into the data, we find that, within the last 12 months, students reported that:

  • Things were hopeless (53%)
  • They were overwhelmed by all they had to do (86.9%)
  • They felt exhausted (not from physical activity) (83.4%)
  • They were very lonely (64.4%)
  • Very sad (68.1%)
  • So depressed that it was difficult to function (40.1% )
  • They felt overwhelming anxiety (61.4%)
  • They experienced overwhelming anger (41.8%)

Within the last 12 months, 26.3% of women students (and 10.4% of male students) reported being diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety-related issues; 20.8% of women students (and 10.1% of men) were diagnosed or treated for depression, and 14.1% (4.0% of men) for panic attacks.

In the same period, 51.7% of female students (and 39.3 % of males) reported that “academics” (broadly defined) had been traumatic or very difficult to handle, and 44.3% of students reported that they experienced more than average stress, with12.3% reporting “tremendous stress.”

According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey (AUCCCD) for 2016, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant and increasing concern among college students (50.6%), followed by depression (41.2%), relationship concerns (34.4%), suicidal ideation (20.5%), self-injury (14.2%), and alcohol abuse (9.5%). “

Indeed, college students are manifesting record levels of mental health issues, with anxiety newly at the top of the charts. Depending on which survey one consults, somatic symptoms of depression have been on the rise since 1982, and self-reported levels of mental health issues have been increasing since 1985. Some studies suggest that the level of depression college students report have been trending up since the 1930s.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have not reached anything close to a consensus as to why this is the case. Studies have pointed to everything from “modern life,” to  increased social media use, the ubiquity of smart phones, increasing pressures to succeed, helicopter parenting, the fact that many students come from unsafe neighborhoods, that they read about or experienced school (or other) shootings, are terrified that their parents may be deported, or are teetering on the edge of financial disaster. (A New York Times article from 2017 explores this further.)

And, since this is not my field, I couldn’t even hazard a guess outside of the unhelpful observation that (to paraphrase a bumper sticker) “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.”

But, regardless of the cause, the data are clear and point to very troubling rise of student mental health issues in general and anxiety-related issues more particularly. Our students, quite simply, are feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Paying Attention

The central thing we can do at this point of the semester is to be aware of the high levels of anxiety which are present as a base line as we head into the most anxiety-producing weeks of the semester, when final projects are due, exams will be taken, and summer or future plans, if not yet made, must be finalized.

  1. Be aware of the mental health issues faced by students. Really. We’re not talking about the “delicate snowflake” crap that conservative pundits and a triumvirate of columnists at the New York Times seemingly can’t get enough of. We’re talking about being aware of the pressures our students are under in general and at the moment, and then doing all we can to promote learning and student success.
  2. What if — you respond — you’re pretty sure that YOUR students don’t fall into this category. In the first place, the data would suggest that they do. In the second, it doesn’t matter. The basic principles of universal design for learning indicate that by organizing classes to serve everyone, you will benefit everyone, including those you weren’t particularly thinking of. By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can gain, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. (As has been noted many times: curb cuts in sidewalks were “intended” for wheelchair use: but look at how many people pushing strollers, on rollerblades, lugging grocery carts, or riding skateboards have benefited.)
  3. Tune into your own emotional state. You can’t help your students when you, as well, are short of sleep, short of breath, and short of patience. P.L. Thomas recently observed that, “When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are ‘out of joint’ with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.” To experience anxiety is to be pushed into isolation. Thomas quotes Vik Loveday who, in “The Neurotic Academic,” explains, that while “viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.” We are compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated; talk to colleagues and friends.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1858). Color woodblock print. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What Can We Do To Help Our Students?

  • Slow them (and yourself) down. It is very late in the semester to begin “mindfulness” practices – helping students to check into their own mental, emotional and physical health – but it’s not too late to help them calm down. Understanding that this is the moment when you tend to shift from 33 1⁄3 to 78, it is nevertheless important to take a few minutes to slow down. Consider starting each class by having students (and you) close your eyes for a 1-2 minutes (it will seem like a very long time, trust me), and simply focusing on breathing: in and out, in and out.
  • Alternatively, project an image for them to focus on, and ask that they simply observe it while paying attention to their breathing, for 2 minutes. (Bonus points: have them comment on it for one more minute.)
  • Remind them to SHED (sleep, hydration, exercise, diet). Remind your students to drink a lot of water, to pay attention to what they are eating, to get some exercise every day, and to try to get a good night’s sleep. They won’t pay attention to you, of course. But what if the faculty in all their classes said the same thing? (Bonus points: bring in a few extra water bottles to hand out.)
  • Be aware of our counseling services and what they provide (Oberlin’s Counseling Center offers regular appointments and walk-in hours; talk to the Dean of Students’ office if you are unsure whether you think a student needs more attention than you can provide; bring a student to counseling if you think it is an emergency.
  • Make use of SHARE (Student Help and Resource Exchange). SHARE is a multidisciplinary group promoting student success by providing a forum for faculty, staff, and students to share concerns, supporting a collaborative approach, and providing opportunities for meaningful interactions. Students may visit the SHARE website to schedule a meeting with a SHARE Advisor. Anyone working with a student can complete a SHARE form. [Added April 24, 2018]

If you have other suggestions that can help students in this age of anxiety, please pass them along and I’ll add them to this list.

Here’s a short piece by Nancy Darling (Psychology) on “How to Relax in Five Minutes” that appeared in Psychology Today (March 10, 2017). [Added 04/22/18: 11:51 AM]

One thought on “Breathe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *