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 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."
assisting those in
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
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
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