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Stress on campus

Navigating the way back from emotional trauma

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Homework, grades, relationships, jobs and finals. There's no end to stressors for today's teens and college kids, many who say they are so stressed out that school work suffers.

In fact, according to a recent undergraduate survey by the Associated Press and mtvU, a television network available on many collegiate campuses, four in ten say they endure stress often. One in five admit to feeling stressed almost all the time.

The emotional and academic pressures of university life, while often exhilarating, can be overwhelming for some, but are only the tip of the iceberg in the wake of recent incidents of campus violence and unspeakable tragedy.

"Tragedy like that experienced Feb. 14 at Northern Illinois University causes unusual stress in those directly and indirectly impacted," explains Carol Wozniewski, executive director, Mental Health America in Illinois. "Each person responds uniquely and the range of reactions to crises are wide. Emotional crises can appear immediately or sometimes, months later."

It's often difficult to predict the impact of trauma when everyone feels helpless and so many are exposed to the event, says Deborah Haliczer, director of the NIU employee relations office and employee assistance program (EAP).

"The outpouring of support at NIU was astounding," Haliczer recalls. "Bolstered by tangible acts of support and messages of comfort, the entire community rallied to provide aid to our 25,000-student campus community and many of those efforts continue."

Recognizing & assisting those in emotional distress

More than 75 NIU campus workshops, scheduled within days of the campus shootings and before students returned to campus, helped 4,000 staff and faculty members come to grips with the wide variety of reactions and to better understand student stress reactions, signs for concern, available resources and the impact of trauma on learning.

"Thanks to the efforts of more than 500 volunteer counselors with a presence in each and every classroom, dialogue was open and assistance available in the immediate aftermath," Haliczer says. "Faculty members attended briefing sessions with their departments to learn how even an indirect exposure to trauma can have a major impact. As educators, most of us didn't know how to talk about tragedy or how to best be helpful in the wake of such shock. Everyone was traumatized and many reported a direct connection to the specific classroom, students or families."

Behaviorally, she says, staff learned that students may appear jumpy, have intrusive thoughts, experience nightmares and disturbed sleep patterns, appear moody, sad or angry and withdraw socially. They were warned that stress responses could interfere with concentration, memory and learning, with many opting to postpone scheduled tests and quizzes until students had a chance to regroup.

"In the first week back, students and faculty alike reported jumping at sudden and unexpected noises, startling at the sound of a pencil dropping and experiencing feelings of unease when a musically inclined student appeared carrying a guitar case," Haliczer states. "Our employee assistance program received calls from staff members wanting to make referrals and others who were having trouble coping with feelings of guilt, anxiety or for whom the tragedy stirred up old issues and other losses."

Additional counseling support for both students and staff, she says, came from a number of Illinois colleges as well as out-of-state universities, the Chicago Public School system, Illinois high schools, churches, private community agencies and the Division of Mental Health for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Unexpected and much beloved four-legged support included a number of specially trained therapy dogs from the Oregon-based non-profit Animal Assisted Crisis Response organization, who cuddled and mingled with students during the first days of classes.

Campus and online memorials, overflowing message boards and notes of support from around the country, a 40,000 piece ribbon campaign, and signs bearing the phrase "Forward, together forward," quickly filled campus as well as the DeKalb and Sycamore communities.

According to a faculty handout prepared by Toni Tollerud, Ph.D., and Lee Shumow, Ph.D., from NIU's College of Education, Center for Child Welfare & Education and used during the post trauma inservice training sessions, faculty were warned that student school performance may be affected by impaired reading comprehension, recall and memorization, increased absenteeism, inconsistency in academic performance, impaired problem-solving and increased feelings of frustration or heightened anxiety.

Stress also effects younger students

Stress isn't limited to the college crowd, according to mental health experts who say the elementary school playground, middle school locker room and high school classrooms can be pretty stressful places, too.

"In the long run, look for changes in what seems normal," advises Lori Mackey, a child and adolescent specialist at Wellness Place, a Palatine-based community resource center providing counseling and integrative therapies at no cost for those facing cancer and their families.

"A traumatic and sudden cancer diagnosis, death in the family, divorce and family illness also can be cause for chronic stress reactions," she explains. "Teens, already in a state of perpetual emotional change and development, often have trouble expressing or verbalizing fears and trauma. They're a tough crowd to reach."

As a board-certified art therapist, Mackey says she often has clients put pencil, pastels and oils to canvas to spur conversation.

"Art is a universal language for all ages," Mackey explains. "I don't interpret their artwork, but rather encourage communication and self-expression through the images and metaphors in their drawings."

For the younger crowd, she says, play therapy is a great way to give kids back a sense of control and share information.

"Helping children, teens and young adults make sense of the unexplainable and put their thoughts into images and words helps empower them to better manage stress," she concludes.

For information on student stress or trauma, contact Mental Health America of Illinois (MHAI) at (312) 368-9070 ext. 10, or visit www.mhai.org.


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