With classes just starting, it can seem like Week of Welcome has just been a barrage of preparatory work and entertaining activities. You couldn’t be stressed out already … Or can you?
The most common adjustment stressors for incoming freshmen and transfer students include homesickness, roommate issues and the fact that UCSB poses a more difficult academic setting than what incoming students might be familiar with, according to Kirsten Olson, Ph.D. and clinical psychologist at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“They might be used to getting all As in high school without working very hard. Then those same study habits don’t work anymore, and they have to work much harder to get the same grades,” Olson said. “It’s similar for transfer students, in that they come from community colleges, and classes here are bigger and much harder.”
But continuing students can also face stressful issues at the start of the new year, and the ones most likely to throw people into a crisis are relationship problems — from break-ups with a long-distance partner or roommate drama, to family concerns or problems with a professor, Olson said.
“Relationship problems are the number one issues people come in to CAPS for, and they often cause the anxiety and depression,” Olson said. “Or, anxiety and depression come first, and that causes the relationship problems. Regardless, relationship problems compound everything.”
The Livin’ Ain’t So Easy: Social Anxiety in the Dorm Life
Two years ago, third-year psychology major Yasmin Irfani moved into her Santa Rosa triple as an out-of-state student from New York. While her living arrangement anxiety only lasted one week, it shocked her.
“It was just so odd living in a room with two strangers you didn’t know at all,” Irfani said. “I was an only child back at home. Here, you don’t know how to be yourself yet and there’s that whole thing about trying to not be awkward, when communicating if it’s cool to talk on the phone a bit or to ask for space for your towel.”
Immediately, the anxiety Irfani felt took a toll on her physical state. “I couldn’t sleep at night for the entire first week because I had been so sheltered in my childhood and I never got to go to sleepovers,” she said. “It was kind of about being on your own, not having family to rely on and wake you up for class in case your alarm didn’t go off.”
Following those first few days of ‘going away to college’ stress, Irfani came across the UCSB Mental Health Peers when the organization was tabling at the Arbor. She found out about a stress management workshop, a 24/7 counseling line offered by CAPS and a multitude of other services.
According to Olson, CAPS offers crisis intervention programs, short-term individual therapy and a wide variety of group therapy and counseling. She said there is also the Mental Health Peer Program — the same resource Irfani utilized — which gives students peer-to-peer counseling. “Oftentimes, people don’t want to talk to a psychologist, but rather to somebody they can relate to, in a different way,” she said.
After talking to Mental Health Peers and a psychologist, Irfani said her worries about dorm life and other living adjustments were lifted.
“After that, the rest of my transition was totally fine because I knew that I had that support. If I ever needed anything, I could do drop-in, schedule an appointment to talk to Mental Health Peers or a psychologist or call the 24-hour line,” Irfani said. “I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
Alcohol and Drugs: A Quick Fix?
But for some students, the path to relieving stress is not always so straightforward. Back in January, Lauren Pierce, a third-year political science and global studies double major, regularly engaged in Greek life and sustained an active social and academic life typical for most college students. But in spite of her seemingly well put together front, Pierce had recently experienced the loss of her mother, who passed away on New Year’s Day.
“I was there to see her at the hospital an hour before she passed,” she said. “Everything was fine and we were like, ‘Well, I’ll see you later.’ An hour after I left, she ended up passing away.”
The experience left Pierce with a flurry of newfound emotional struggles, even as she attempted to continue her day-to-day life at the start of Winter Quarter.
“I was more stressed on the simple question of, ‘What am I going to do now?’ My mom is gone.” Pierce said. “As soon as school started, I went into hyper-drive, thinking that I can’t let this bother me. But it was eating at me.”
While Pierce received her worst GPA and faced other struggles that quarter, she said she continued to hide her pain from those around her. “I’m that kind of person who can literally put up a front that I’m fine. So, people around me didn’t know how to talk about it with me,” she said. “I didn’t want to take down anyone else’s day. I thought I had to remain composed, but it started to take a toll on me.”
Eventually, Pierce began turning to alcohol to numb some of these negative emotions.
“When you feel the urge to grieve, yeah it’s a shock, but if you hold it in, it’ll come out during really bad times,” Pierce said. “Like for me, for the first month of Winter Quarter or so, I was becoming best friends with alcohol. I knew it was wrong and I knew it wasn’t helping, but I tried to find something to fill that gap.”
According to Lacey Johnson, a Drug & Alcohol Program counselor, the unfilled gap that Pierce referred to is not uncommon for other students. Johnson said current trends indicate students have a hard time figuring out healthy ways to lower their anxiety levels and can sometimes resort to alcohol and drugs as an easy relief.
“I see it all the time,” Johnson said. “It’s actually not so much a trend, as it is a constant.”
The reason behind this constant, Johnson said, could be the discrepancy between the perceived and actual use of potentially addictive substances amongst college students. Citing data from a National College Health Assessment study in 2011, Johnson said that while about 76 percent of college students admitted to using alcohol in the past 30 days, the perceived use of alcohol was actually much higher — at 98 percent.
The study also revealed that while about 40 percent of students admitted to using marijuana in the past 30 days, the perceived use of the drug was a surprising 96 percent. Additionally, while the actual use of drugs other than marijuana was only roughly 15 percent, the rate of perceived use of these substances came out to 82 percent.
Johnson encouraged students to take a holistic approach to dealing with stress and explore different types coping mechanisms — such as exercise, yoga, artistic expression, socializing, watching movies or enjoying the outdoors.
“Try not to use substances as a form of coping,” Johnson said. “Find other healthy ways. Maybe these things are being involved in a sport or a hobby that you can continue doing at UCSB, or maybe consider trying new things to deal with stress here.”
The Alcohol & Drug Program offers services like free and confidential counseling or support groups for anything from marijuana moderation to the development of healthy family relationships, Johnson said.
“We are a nonjudgmental service, here to help students on campus make safe and healthy decisions,” Johnson said. “We really understand what’s going on at UCSB and at Isla Vista, so we’re here to meet students where they’re at and give them the support they need.”
Navigating through Stigmas and Finding Campus Resources
For Pierce, her healing did not begin until she opened up to a friend, who also happened to be her Bible study leader and urged Pierce to find solace in her religious faith. While Pierce said she understands why others would reach out to counseling or psychological programs, she chose to turn to her faith.
“I kind of wish I could’ve went to therapy or something, but I don’t know,” she said. “When you come from my kind of family — with Dad being a military man — family problems are familyproblems, not therapist problems.”
At CAPS, Olson said she noticed stigmas are a big reason for people to skip out on therapy or counseling aid during stressful situations, “Sometimes people think they go to therapy because they’re crazy, weak or something’s wrong with them. Okay, certainly people come in when they’re in crisis, but you don’t have to wait until you have a crisis, and all because you come to therapy does not mean you’re crazy or weak.”
UCSB currently offers an array of programs serving these emotional needs and Jackie Kurta, clinical manager of the Alcohol & Drug Program, said one such program is ‘Gaucho FYI’ — a new service that provides 90-minute educational workshops for students in groups of 25 to 30.
“There’s something good about being in a small group with your peers,” Kurta said of the program. “Plus, the students leading the workshops are from all different kinds of organizations on campus, like CAPS, Health & Wellness, the Women’s Center and UC Police Department.”
In addition, Health Educator at the Health & Wellness Program Michael Takahara said programs like Gaucho FYI act as an innovative method to approach first-year and transfer students and introduce them to the wide variety of programs and departments on campus.
For example, the Health & Wellness Program uses research strategies to improve students’ well-being, offering weekly training courses and holding workshops on topics like communication skills and healthy eating, Takahara said.
“Not only are we plugging the students to go to the Recreation Center and Student Health to work on their physical health, CAPs for mental health and Health & Wellness for social health, but we’re also promoting the idea of working on your full being,” Takahara said. “This is about health from not just one part of your life, but as a whole — as a human being, a student, a worker and a community member.”
Stress That Can Build Toward Depression and Suicide …
According to CAPS statistics, Olson said suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst college students, “We’re doing a lot of campaigning and outreach efforts to let students know about warning signs of suicide, [like] how to be a bystander for intervention and help students recognize the signs, not only in themselves but also in a friend.”
The same statistics, Olson noted, revealed that 50 percent of graduates and undergraduates report feeling depressed and at some point have trouble functioning, and she said social engagement can act as the best solution for these struggles, such as “talking to friend, family member, TA or RA.”
For third-year pre-biology major Nathan Pinckard, his strong connection with his family, friends and faith helped him overcome a severe allergic reaction to a prescription acne drug, Accutane, and the brief sweep of suicidal thoughts that ensued.
“What was hard, emotionally, was that my confidence was destroyed and broken down, and I couldn’t look people in the face anymore. I would avoid the mirror when I was in the bathroom,” Pinckard said. “Psychologically, I had never really contemplated suicide before, but during that time, the thoughts were kind of there. They weren’t at the forefront of my brain, but they were in the background: ‘You could end your suffering now.’”
But Pinckard didn’t.
With strong support from his family and friends, as well as staying connected to his Christian faith, Pinckard said he was able to come out of his depressive episode.
“I was constantly on the phone with my mom and dad during that time,” Pinckard said. “A lot of it was family support and any support system. There was the Intervarsity [Christian Fellowship] community, full of prayers — that’s what got me through it.”
Pinckard said he dispelled stress by taking long walks, reading other people’s similar stories on online forums and listening to Bob Marley, but most of the relief consisted of open communication.
“When you’re stuck in your head and you’re thinking and thinking, you’re not getting rid of stress,” Pinckard said. “What helped was the communication with family and support groups. I then got in contact with my dermatologist again, and she prescribed me two different drugs, both of which really helped me get back on track.”
Stress: the Conquerable Foe
So maybe the first week of school isn’t so stress-free after all. But don’t fret, Gauchos. Stress is conquerable.
Olson urges students to seek out support in any way they find comfortable, whether it is the utilization of a campus service, finding support in family and/or religion or just seeking out a simple conversation with a friend.
“College is about discovering who you are, discovering yourself as a person and having healthy relationships,” Olson said. “We’re here not only to make people successful students, but also to make sure they become successful Gauchos and successful people in general.”
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of the September 26, 2013 print issue.