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Twin Ports higher ed counselors help students in stress-filled times

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College life can be stressful, so one of the things the University of Minnesota Duluth does to help students cope is offer "Calm" — 30-minute relaxation sessions four days a week in the library.

Dori DeckerBut this semester, typically only one or two students a week have shown up for any of the sessions, said Dori Decker, wellness coordinator for UMD Health Services.

Her reading, Decker said, is not that students don't appreciate the opportunity. They simply can't fit it into their schedules.

"The sense that I'm getting from students is that the idea of carving out time, to dedicate time to self-care and stress reduction, it doesn't seem like that's a reality," Decker said. "There's a perception that there's not time to do those things."

David SwensonStress probably has been with humankind since Adam and Eve hid in the garden. Achilles apparently experienced post traumatic stress syndrome, said David Swenson, a forensic psychologist who has been on the faculty at the College of St. Scholastica for 40 years. In the "Aeneid," Virgil writes about Achilles seeing the faces and cries of those he'd killed in battle in his dreams and when awake.

"That's a good example of flashbacks, of PTSD," Swenson said.

Teresa GuerreroIt long has been part of life in higher education, said Teresa Guerrero, interim director of the Student Center for Health and Well-Being at St. Scholastica.

"Working toward the goal of a college education has always come with stressors," Guerrero said. "Many of these stressors associated with working toward that goal were there 20 or 30 years ago."

Yet the nature of stress in higher ed has changed, Guerrero and others in the field say.

Guerrero cited the annual student health assessment last spring by the American College Health Association. During the previous 12 months, 87.4 percent of the students reported they had felt — at some point overwhelmed by all they had to do.

'It was palpable'

About five years ago, Guerrero said, there was a flip nationally, so that instead of depression, the primary concern presented in college mental health centers was anxiety. She saw the same thing at St. Scholastica.

"You felt it," she said. "It was palpable."

Jean Baribeau-ThoennesJean Baribeau-Thoennes, counseling director at UMD, said she saw the same switch, although perhaps earlier.

Anxiety may stem, in part, from increasing complexity of students' lives, Baribeau-Thoennes said.

"They're just trying to balance so much at the same time as the cost of a college education goes up," she said. "They may be trying to take more credits to get through and get done faster. A lot of students are having to balance working while being in school."

Today's students also bring with them memories of the 2007-09 recession, Baribeau-Thoennes said. They may feel uncertainty about their futures because they saw their parents lose their jobs and the family's income decrease.

Whatever the reasons, counselors on campus are busy. The average wait time to see one of UMD's eight counselors for a first appointment is eight to nine days, Baribeau-Thoennes said, although often students are seen sooner because others cancel or reschedule appointments. UMD also has a mental health case manager to "triage" crisis situations.

Scholastica has three full-time counselors, Guerrero said, plus a part-time intern, and she also sees students part time in addition to her administrative work.

"We work really hard to keep our wait list under two weeks, and we have been successful with that," she said. "But we are booked solid every day."

What's offered

Randy BarkerTwin Ports campuses offer resources to help students deal with stress. The University of Wisconsin-Superior opened a new office this academic year for that purpose, the Pruitt Center for Mindfulness and Well-Being. The center focuses on helping faculty and staff as well as students, said Randy Barker, its interim director.

"If we can help (faculty and staff) reduce their stress level and improve their well-being, that's obviously going to have a significant impact on our students," he said.

The center recently completed an eight-week program on stress-reduction taken by about 20 faculty and staff, Barker said. Yoga and mindfulness sessions are offered regularly, and this month the Center for College Sleep from St. Thomas will be at UWS to offer three presentations.

St. Scholastica has monthly "Tuesday talks" on subjects such as "How to make friends with stress," Guerrero said. One of the activities during the school's "welcome week" for first-time students this semester was a relaxation activity.

'Stress-less' week

Adam BriskThe UMD library sponsors a "stress-less" week at finals time, said Adam Brisk, online learning and outreach librarian. A large table in the atrium is filled with activities such as coloring, working with Legos, building stress balls and playing Connect Four. ("Hungry, Hungry Hippos" turned out to be too noisy, Brisk said.)

The Lake Superior Zoo' zoomobile stops by for a few hours. "It's a cool transformative moment when you can be 10 all the sudden and you get to play with a hamster," Brisk said.

Eight times during the academic year, a "pet-away" occurs with dogs provided by Animal Allies.

There's also the aforementioned Calm sessions, a program Decker initiated in the fall of 2014, she said. During the 2017-18 academic year, there were 81 student visits.

In addition to regular counseling services, UMD offers "Let's Talk" sessions a few days a week, Baribeau-Thoennes said. A counselor is made available in an office at the Kirby Student Center or in a residence hall. A student can drop in without an appointment for a 10- or 15-minute consultation and doesn't even have to give their name.

"I like to talk about it as if it's sticking your toe in to test the water," Baribeau-Thoennes said. "A lot of times we're referring people back to counseling, and once they've spoken to somebody and they have a sense of what it's about, it doesn't feel so scary anymore."

The counselors interviewed for this story stressed the importance of what they call self-care.

But as at UMD, students at UWS sometimes say they don't have enough time to care for their own mental health needs, Barker said.

"And my comeback to that is always, well, by taking time to do this you actually gain time," he said. "By taking time to do these things, you're going to become more productive, more creative, a problem-solver. Those are all things that I think students need to hear and want to hear."

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Stress 101: How to handle it

Randy Barker uses the acronym STRESS when talking to students and others about how to relieve stress.

The letters the licensed professional counselor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior uses the letters to stand for “slow down,” “take breaks,” “relax,” “eat healthy,” “sleep” and “sweat.”

To expand, here’s a compilation of tips Barker and other counseling professionals from Twin Ports campuses offered to help students — and the rest of us — cope with stress:

  • Pay attention to the cues that cause stress, and respond to them.

David Swenson, a forensic psychologist who directs the MBA program in rural health care at the College of St. Scholastica, sticks green dots to his phone, to his desk drawer and to his wallet, among other places. When he sees a green dot, he said, it’s a cue to take a deep breath and relax.

  • Take a social media fast.

Teresa Guerrero, director of counseling at St. Scholastica, noted that the Gen Z generation — 15- to 21-year-olds — are “digital natives” who have never known a world without smartphones. But digital platforms such as Instagram can be competitive and produce anxiety over the fear of not measuring up.

  • Take a piece-by-piece approach.

When something feels overwhelming, break it down into more manageable pieces, said Jean Baribeau-Thoennes, director of counseling at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“If the week feels overwhelming to you, then let’s just start with today,” she said. “And if today feels overwhelming to you, let’s just start with this morning.”

  • Take breaks.

“At times, take that step back,” Barker said.

Swenson said he’ll look up at a photo of his Norwegian elkhound that’s on his office wall. He has a collection of videos that give him a smile, such as one of a polar bear playing with the dogs at a mushing camp.

  • Relax.

Take deep breaths, Barker said. Learn the techniques.

“Using some forms of meditation, doing yoga — the ability to relax is vital,” he said. “One thing I try to promote with educators is at the beginning of each class taking two minutes to allow people to just settle.”

  • Get enough sleep.

Swenson cited a study showing that if people get two hours less sleep than they need over a two-week period, their performance is about the same as if they had a .08 blood alcohol level.

Students need to know that pulling an all-nighter is a losing strategy, Baribeau-Thoennes said.

“If you’re staying up all night when you’re cramming for an exam, the time that that information moves from your short-term memory to your long-term memory is when you’re asleep,” she said. “Really, you are going to perform better if you take care of yourself.”

  • Exercise.

“The research has shown over and over again that exercise is the best antidepressant, anti-anxiety, anti-stress medication,” Barker said.

  • Eat healthy foods.

Put the right fuel into your body, Barker said. Stress may cause us to crave sweets and carbs, but avoid them and avoid alcohol. Eat three meals a day, and forget about skipping breakfast.

  • Practice.

It’s not good enough to take t’ai chi or yoga or a mindfulness class once a week, Swenson said. “Anything’s going to require time, and so it’s a matter of setting priorities and realizing that some of the investments you make now have long-term gains.”