Workshop Targets Student Stress
By Yi Lu ’14, Contributing Writer
When things spiral out of control, people tend to cope by pretending to be strong. Such a defense mechanism is exactly what the Counseling Center’s new workshop, “Staying Resilient at Amherst: How to Help Yourself and Take Care of Others in Challenging Times,” sought to change this Monday.

“You don’t have to hold it all to yourself. It’s time to normalize stress and talk to your friends about your stress face-to-face,” said Dr. Debra Edelman, psychologist at the Counseling Center and co-leader of the workshop.

Following a series of training sessions for residential counselors, faculty and staff members, Monday’s workshop marked the Counseling Center’s latest effort to help Amherst students recognize common symptoms of stress among their friends and connect them to the psychological support that they need to recharge and move on.

“Having these stress issues is nothing unusual,” said Dr. Kim Gaitskill, psychiatric consultant to the Counseling Center.

At the workshop, Dr. Gaitskill estimated that in a college campus of 2,000, 200 students per year have an onset of a major mood disorder due to a variety of stressors, including academic and athletic pressure.

Such an estimate aligns with recent findings of the 2010 Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey, which surveyed 200,000 college freshmen nationwide, with the College as a participating institution. First-year students at four-year colleges and universities report record-low self-ratings of their emotional health, with only 51.9% students indicating their health was in “top 10%” or “above average.”

“Amherst is not immune to this,” said Dr. Ruth Kane-Levi of the Counseling Center, “but students can help each other out.”

The Staying Resilient workshop began with a session to help students identify symptoms of distress. These symptoms range from urgent situations such as substance abuse or suicide attempts, to concerning behaviors that may be subtle to detect at first, like exaggerated emotional response or marked changes in personal hygiene or dress.

“When you discover these symptoms, use your intuition and your best judgments,” Dr. Edelman said. “For most urgent situations, you should immediately alert the campus police. And as for more concerning issues, try to begin a real face-to-face conversation with students, with no judging.”

She added that while social networking websites are useful tools for productivity, they are no substitute for real face-to-face conversations and may not facilitate a healthy expression of one’s emotions.

The session also highlighted the many layers of support available at the College: class deans, residential counselors, peer health educators and professionals at the Health Center are all trained and prepared to assist students. In particular, the Counseling Center, located at Scott House cross the street from Orr Rink, offers free and voluntary sessions with individual students and guarantees strict confidentiality.

“Coming to counseling doesn’t mean you are weak or defective,” said Dr. Kane-Levi. “In fact, by the time a student graduates, more than 30% of his/her class will have come to the Counseling Center at certain points of their Amherst career.”

There are everyday exercises that may help students navigate the stress of college life, too. According to Dr. Edelman, strategies to achieve greater emotional resilience can be as simple as a 15-minute diaphragm breathing or naming three things that make you happy before going to bed.

“Resilience is like your emotional muscle,” said Dr. Edelman after a group breathing exercise. “It’s a skill that we can all learn.”

The Counseling Center plans to host a second session of the workshop toward the end of the semester.

Issue 13, Submitted 2011-02-02 03:28:30