Supports to help students cope with stress

BEREAVEMENT, moving home, divorce, illness and job- loss are often rated as our top life-style stressors – but shouldn’t starting college be in there somewhere too?

For many of the 60,000 students recently offered college places by CAO, the abrupt move from the sheltered and familiar environment of school, home and old friends will be a seismic upheaval.

Unfamiliar people, subjects and a study routine whose success hinges, not on external supervision but on self-discipline, can all cause anxiety — not to mention class sizes of up to 400 in some lecture halls.

According to Nóirín Deady, the first-year experience coordinator at University College Cork, it usually takes about six weeks for students to adjust to their new life.

Supports to help students cope with stress

“Transition to university involves major disruptions in routine and forces students to re-examine their values and lifestyle.

“Studies are self-directed, meaning students are not assigned work on a daily/weekly basis and need to keep up with assignments and readings on their own.

“This can be challenging for students, especially those who are used to the structure and accountability of the school system.”

Like most Irish colleges, UCC now has a network of special supports to help first-years acclimatise to their new life – from information evenings and open days starting in April and May, to live Q&A sessions from June to September, taster courses, summer schools and social media interaction.

All first-years are assigned a peer support leader at orientation and are invited to participate in Fresher’s Fest, where students register for academic and skills workshops on everything from writing essays to taking good notes. These receive positive feedback from students, says Deady.

Supports to help students cope with stress

In Dublin City University a similar structure of supports has proved enormously beneficial, says Deirdre Moloney, the college’s senior student support officer and academic life coach, who manages the Student Advice Centre.

Moloney believes that these supports can be of great help to students, particularly the one in 10 or more who experience what she describes as significant problems resulting from difficulties with the course and work expectations, the move from a rural to urban lifestyle, money, homesickness or loneliness.

“Students can get one-to-one sessions and support with time management, study planning, exam preparation,” she says, adding that while they need to stay on top of the work, they don’t always have the skills to establish a good study routine.

“We also have a writing centre to guide them through the structure of writing assignments — these supports are effective and get good feedback from the students.”

Workshops on resilience, confidence-building and mindfulness are also available.

Supports to help students cope with stress

One of the biggest problems for freshers, however, is the clash between their expectations of their course and the reality, reports Kevin Donoghue president of USI.

“There can be a lack of understanding of what is involved in a course because it may be very specialised courses,” he says, adding that mental health problems can also result from loneliness, separation anxiety, financial concerns and the pressure to be “excited” all the time.

In terms of financial worries, Donoghue says students are now more anxious than they were even five years ago. 

“Parents are taking on debts or the student is taking on debt and increasingly first years are enrolling in college wondering if they will be financially able to complete the course,” he says, pointing to the fact that the €3,000 college registration fee is now the second-highest in Europe, while the cost of living away to attend college here has been estimated at €12,000 a year.

Female students in particular face an unprecedented social media pressure — a huge cause of anxiety, says Moloney.

Supports to help students cope with stress

Girls feel the need to be ‘very glammed up’, she says, and to “be a certain weight and look a certain way. They are expected to be perfect — it’s all about weight, appearance, relationships. Everything is labelled and Facebook, Instragram and Snapchat are an extension of who you are now.”

Of course it’s not just students living away from home who face challenges — life’s not a neat rose garden for those who choose to stay at home either.

“Often parents find it difficult to stop laying down the law,” says Deady, adding it’s important for parents to negotiate new ground rules around safety and respect.

Keeping the lines of communication open is vital, as is knowing how to listen to identify when a student really needs support and guidance.

“Over-controlling parents don’t do third-level students any favours. Helicopter parenting has a negative impact on students because it undermines their need to feel autonomous and competent,” says Deady. 

“They must be trusted and allowed make their own mistakes and to learn from them.”

However, she adds, although traditionally going to university was about “getting as far away from parents as possible, not washing sheets for months on end and living on a diet of spaghetti bolognese,” nowadays more and more students are reluctant to leave the nest.

Supports to help students cope with stress

“There are many reasons for this — rising costs, lack of suitable accommodation, and a genuine fear that they don’t have the basic skills to look after themselves properly.

“Parents who haven’t been to university don’t necessarily appreciate the benefits of moving away to university,” says Deady.

However, it’s important to note that the fundamental issue for many troubled first-year students may not be about going to college at all — it’s more about the growing pains of becoming an adult, believes clinical psychologist Dr Declan Aherne, head of counselling at the University of Limerick for 30 years.

Large numbers of first-year students do seek counselling – but it’s often because they’re struggling to navigate a very natural and normal period of emotional and mental turbulence, he believes. “It’s more about the transition to adulthood than transition into college,” he says.

“This generation is looking for someone to talk to, it is as simple as that, and a lot of it boils down to a sense of self, a sense of self-worth, of fitting in and fear of the challenge of adulthood,” he says, adding that in his experience about one in six first-year students will seek counselling sessions.

Supports to help students cope with stress

Some of today’s students appear to lack resilience, he believes – 20 years ago Ahern says, he might have encountered one student in 100 who reported feeling suicidal.

“Now that has changed to one in 10, which tells us young people don’t feel they have the coping capacity that we had 20 years ago.”

The challenges may be different, he acknowledges, but he also suspects a significant lack of traditional coping skills.

“Parents are terrified of any talk of suicide and spend much time and effort making their kids happy, to the extent that if children feel unhappy they assume there’s something really wrong,” he says.

But as most of us learn, part of becoming a capable adult is understanding that life is full of ups and downs – and that you can’t expect to always feel happy.

Says Aherne: “I always think that the book I will write when I retire will be called Just Grow Up!”

Useful websites: 


Supports to help students cope with stress

First six weeks

1. Go to orientation.

2. Decide to meet one new person every week. Class mates are a great resource if you have to miss a lecture.

3. Get organised. Buy a big wall calendar — know when and where your lectures, tutorials and labs are. Know when your assignments are due and note exams dates.

4. Find the ideal place for your study — a cosy corner in the library might be your best option.

5. Go to your lectures. By attending lectures you will receive vital information and tips.

6. Get to know your academic advisor/mentor

7. Meet your academic advisor/mentor. Academic staff schedule office hours specifically for the purpose of meeting you. Take advantage of that time.

8. Get involved in student life.

9. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Exercise every day.

Second six weeks

1. Get the balance right. If you want to play hard, you must study hard.

2. Strive for good results. Set goals for yourself and work hard to achieve them.

3. Take advantage of the study resources. Get to know your subject librarian.

4. Consider forming a study group.

5. Don’t feel pressure to make hasty decisions. This is not a race.

6. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Being an adult means taking responsibility for everything that happens to you.

7. Prioritise your life and don’t procrastinate. Complete assignments and get good results — give yourself deadlines.

8. Stay healthy.

9. Seek professional help when you need it.

10. Keep track of your money. Get help if you are struggling financially.

Tips supplied by UCC


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