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College students are often overwhelmed with a variety of stressors at the end of a semester. Eight in 10 college students experience frequent stress which can negatively impact their mental health, according to the American Institute for Stress (AIS). And TimelyCare’s research suggests that rates of seeking care for stress, anxiety, and depression increase as the semester winds down. So, how does end-of-semester stress impact student health, and what can higher education leaders do to help students destress?
College life is uniquely stressful. Students not only have to deal with a bigger academic workload than they did in high school, but they’re expected to function socially, plan financially, and deal with living away from home for the first time. Despite the various sources of stress, data reveals that “finals and midterms accounted for the top source of stress for 31% of U.S. students.” Similarly, internal data from the TimelyCare platform found increases at the end of the semester in rates of students seeking care for stress, anxiety, and depression – especially outside campus support service business hours.
Causes of stress for students at the end of a semester
A study by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association (ACHA) shows student anxiety rose from 17-31% over a six-year period. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on higher education didn’t help. In fact, students reported spikes in anxiety and depression during 2020, with 60% saying the ongoing pandemic made it harder to access mental health care. Given that students struggling with mental health issues are twice as likely to drop out, higher education leaders need to be familiar with the primary stressors for college students.
Here are some of the most common end-of-semester stressors for college students:
During finals week, students deal with the daily effects of stress on top of end-of-semester academic requirements. This increase in stress can have various physical and emotional consequences, including fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, loss of concentration, binged or reduced eating, memory loss, mood changes, and feelings of loneliness and helplessness.
Researchers found that finals and midterms are the top two sources of stress for 31% of students; class and workload third (23%); and homework fourth (13%). Nearly 37% of college students pointed to stress and 29.5% listed anxiety as the biggest reason their academic performance suffered negatively over the past 12 months.
Bullying and harassment
For students approaching the end of their college career, preparing for graduation triggers the realization that adulthood is right around the corner. For many, this realization comes with a “feeling of loss, uncertainty, unrealistic expectations, and relationship changes which can all be triggering.”
The natural next step for most college students after they graduate from college is finding employment. However, seeking employment brings new stressors for students as they enter another period of life transition.
- Regret and uncertainty about college major
- Moving away from college friends and support network
- Increased competition in the job market
- Impact first post-grad job has on a career path
In the face of these stressors, TimelyCare’s recent survey found that college graduates (93%) are hopeful for their future and 88% are hopeful about their future. However, the pandemic’s impact on their mental health was the No. 1 reason that students felt less prepared to enter the workforce.
Forty-five percent of adolescents get insufficient sleep on a school night, with this figure rising to 62% among older students, which can impact mental health and wellness. A survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 80% of college students report feeling stressed by their academic responsibilities as a cause for their lack of sleep. Research confirms that high levels of stress can result in poor sleep quality and eventually lead to chronic insomnia. Prolonged sleep deprivation can result in the development of mood disorders, weakened immune systems, lower concentration, and poor memory, all of which contribute to student anxiety and can negatively affect academic performance.
Support students when they need it most
The negative impact of end-of-semester stress on student physical and mental health
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 80% of U.S. students report feeling stressed “sometimes or often.” Prolonged stress can lead to the development of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and more. It can also introduce physical conditions. Here are some common symptoms:
Many students may feel overwhelmed with workload and deadlines, have worries about grades and academic performance, or face a fear of failure or not meeting expectations.
Just as stress can manifest mental health symptoms, there can be physical symptoms for students such as headaches or migraines, stomachaches or nausea, low energy, fatigue or exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping or insomnia.
Stress can also cause students to have difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks, memory problems or forgetfulness, and difficulty making decisions or poor judgment.
For some students, stress may cause behavioral issues such as procrastination or avoidance of responsibilities, change in eating habits, and increased use of drugs or alcohol.
By being aware of these types of symptoms, higher education professionals can support and empower students in managing their stress and promoting their overall well-being.
Five ways to help students manage end-of-semester stress
Higher education leaders can take steps to support students in managing end-of-year stress through a variety of strategies and resources.
1. Promote healthy sleeping habits, diets, and exercise
Getting the right amount of sleep improves concentration, academic performance, and overall focus. Services like TimelyCare’s health coaches are a great resource to help students create a sleep, diet, and exercise schedule that works for them. By partnering with students, a health coach can help students develop sustainable behavior change based on their unique needs. For example, a health coach can help students create a plan for stress management, time management, healthy eating habits, healthy relationships, substance use/misuse, movement/physical activity, and sleep improvement.
2. Expand counseling center hours or resources
3. Provide self-care resources
While counseling centers are a great resource for mental health, they can also have long wait times, a lack of diverse healthcare providers, or burnt-out staff. Creating and promoting virtual self-care services like TimelyCare’s Self-Care Journeys, can support students if they aren’t ready to talk to a provider or when in-person campus resources may not be available. Whether students need to navigate stress, maintain healthy relationships, or learn healthy eating habits, TimelyCare’s Self-Care Journeys supply students with the tools they need, anytime, anywhere. For students who are navigating healthcare for the first time, these types of resources can equip and empower them – improving health agency and literacy.
4. Promote peer-support resources
Engaging students in peer-to-peer mental health support activities is a critical prevention strategy that institutions can take to promote mental health and well-being, as well as strengthen the capacity for support when a student is in emotional distress or has a mental health crisis. It’s more likely for a student to reach out to a peer than to seek help from another source. So, enabling students to serve in this role will help create a network of effective peer support. Peer-to-peer programs, including Active Minds, Project LETS, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Peer-to-Peer, Lean on Me, and TimelyCare’s Peer Community, can help academic communities raise awareness and address the mental health stigma, reducing barriers of access to mental health support facilities.
5. Prioritize well-being on campus
When students feel supported and valued, their academic performance, retention, and graduation rates increase. Experts recommend that colleges and universities implement “upstream solutions, including teaching programmes focussed on resiliency, stress management, and other behavioral challenges. These may help prevent downstream problems.” Utilizing the types of programs that focus on resilience, stress management, and other behavioral challenges can help students develop coping skills that will serve them well beyond their college years. Additionally, conducting continuous surveys and assessments to determine students’ stress levels and needs can ensure that leaders are meeting students where they are and providing the resources and support necessary to promote their well-being. These steps enable higher education leaders to not only invest in their students’ collegiate success, but also in the community’s success as students enter the workforce.
Emory University addresses end-of-semester stress by offering these tips for students on handling stress during finals. By providing resources and services like these, colleges and universities can help students manage end-of-the-semester stress, prioritize their mental health and well-being, and build student resilience.
Timely services to support your students
The collegiate environment of coursework demands, financial concerns, and being away from family results in increased stress for many students. For college and university leaders, recognizing that stress can be amplified during specific times during the academic year is a crucial first step in addressing it. Though stress isn’t completely avoidable, reducing its influence and impact on students is important.
TimelyCare provides virtual medical and mental health services to over 1.5 million students at over 250 colleges and universities across the U.S. Their services are available 24/7 and include medical consultations, mental health counseling, and psychiatry sessions. The virtual health and well-being resources of TimelyCare make healthcare more accessible and convenient for college students. A virtual care platform starts with the technology students want to use. The TimelyCare platform is built for digital natives with care available through phone, video, or chat.
Interested in a virtual health and well-being solution for your campus? Contact TimelyCare to learn more.