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A student takes a nap inside Wake Forest University's library.

Wake Forest University

Napping students -- exhausted by long nights of studying for exams or writing term papers -- are common in campus libraries. But at Wake Forest University's Z. Smith Reynolds Library, sleeping students can now be found resting in comfortable recliners, instead of snoring into open textbooks. 

Last month, the library unveiled a technology-free relaxation area called the "ZieSta Room." The room -- which originated as a proposal from a group of students -- encourages students to turn off their electronics, put away their books, and take a quick study break, even if that means falling asleep. The space's guidelines stress that the area is not a study space, and that the only reading taking place there should be done for pleasure. The guidelines also remind students that the room is not a place for "monkey business."  (Sarah Boerkircher, Wake Forest's assistant director of communications, said that "the ZieSta Room is not a secluded or isolated room" and is actually a designated space in a larger study area.)

As the area is open 24 hours a day and has no lights, napping is expected and encouraged, said Susan Smith, the library's associate dean.

“Our building isn't really that close to the dorms, and we were hearing from students that whenever they would leave to go rest, they usually didn't make it back to the library," Smith said. "So this was a way to help them relax and then be able to easily get back to studying. Students sometimes call the university 'Work Forest' instead of Wake Forest. It can be intense here."

Wake Forest isn’t just concerned about the stress of students cramming for final exams in the library. In the last two years, the university has revamped its approach to addressing student well-being across campus -- and it's not the only institution trying to help students better-handle the stresses of college.

More than half of college students said they have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the last year, according to the American College Health Association, and 32 percent say they have felt so depressed “that it was difficult to function." Eight percent reported that they had seriously considered suicide.

“Students are more stressed and anxious than ever before,” said Malika Roman Isler, Wake Forest’s new director of wellbeing. “They're paying more than any one has had to and they know they’re graduating into a world with very few guarantees. Their self-worth tends to be tied to accomplishments both in and out of college. And we have high expectations here, so we have to make sure that doesn’t tip into distress.”

Last year, Wake Forest upgraded its outdoor areas to include more seating, board games, outside classrooms, and a piano. This fall, it created the director of well-being position, broke ground on renovating its gymnasium, and launched a wellness initiative called “Thrive.” The initiative, detailed on its website, attempts to teach students about the “eight-dimensional balancing act” that is well-being: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual wellness.

Telling students about the eight tenets is one thing, Isler said, but getting them to listen to and embrace the concepts is a different challenge, especially for first-year students.

The first few weeks of college can be a dangerous time for freshmen as they struggle to adjust to the new freedoms and responsibilities that college can bring. At least eight freshmen at U.S. colleges died in just the first month of the fall semester, with many of the deaths related to alcohol, drugs, or mental health issues. As tempting as it might be to give first-year students as much information about these issues as possible during orientation sessions, Isler said colleges should be careful as to how and when they disseminate messages about student well-being.

“We try not to give them too much information too fast,” Isler said. “They need to be able to soak it in and actually retain it. We’re trying to create strong peer education and leadership networks around this, too. They tend to tune out when ‘grown-ups’ give advice about how they should be living their lives, but they’ll hear it more if it comes from their peers.”

Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, an organization that promotes mental health and suicide prevention, said that more institutions are starting to prioritize student wellness. In September the Jed Foundation partnered with the Clinton Foundation Health Matters Initiative to create the “Campus Program.” More than 65 colleges are currently participating in the program, which is designed to help colleges and universities promote "emotional and mental well-being." That includes reducing substance abuse and preventing suicide.

“There’s this growing awareness that just providing information and focusing on the academic side of things is not sufficient,” Schwartz said. “The program is an attempt to help schools think through all of this in a much more coordinated way. It’s important for schools to connect the dots. That became unfortunately very clear to colleges after the shooting at Virginia Tech. There’s this idea of integrated and connected care.”

Smith said Wake Forest’s new library napping room was not an official part of its larger wellness initiative, but that library staff and the director of well-being will monitor the room’s effectiveness as a stress-reliever, especially as the campus readies for final exams in the next month.

The library will also pay attention to whether students actually honor the area’s designation as a technology-free zone. Research presented last year at the annual convention of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, suggested that students’ overuse of cell phones and social media may be contributing to their anxiety. Smith said it will be up to the students to “self-police” that aspect of the space, though it will provide lockers that will hold and charge students' electronics until they're ready to start studying again.

“The biggest challenge so far is that we declared it as a tech-free, study-free zone and some students have trouble with that,” Smith said. “There’s really no lights there besides the windows, so it’s nice and dim. But it’s really going to be up to the students to say to each other, ‘No you can’t use your computer in here.’ It will be interesting to see if students can unplug even when we specifically give them a place to do that.”

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