Coping With Finals and Stress

Final exams and papers can compound end-of-semester anxiety. Colleges are increasingly offering students coping mechanisms and enhanced mental health services at this time of the year.

December 18, 2019
 
Pat Piasecki / Babson College
Babson students with an emotional support dog.

As the fall college semester comes to an end and students across the country take final exams and complete papers, some institutions are being mindful of the acute stress and anxiety many students feel at this time of year. As a result, colleges and universities are temporarily increasing mental health services and reminding students of the resources available to them.

Stress and anxiety that have been building throughout the semester can culminate at the end of the semester, especially if a student's academic future is riding on an exam grade, said Ryan Travia, associate dean of students for wellness at Babson College, a private institution in Massachusetts that specializes in entrepreneurship. Emotional challenges during finals week are not new -- colleges and universities have long recognized how pressure at the end of academic terms can impact mental health, he said.

“For some students who have not proactively addressed their challenges earlier in the semester, it comes to a boiling point when there’s a condensed schedule and hard-and-fast deadlines,” Travia said.

During this time, colleges and universities offer students a range of study breaks for practicing mindfulness and relieving stress. Some institutions offer options such as guided meditation, hot chocolate bars, rock painting, yoga and therapy dogs. Babson even has campus police set up punching bags for students to work off stress, Travia said.

Counselors at Tufts University, a private research institution in Massachusetts, offer same-day therapy appointments at the counseling and mental health office. More mental health clinicians are also available until finals conclude Dec. 19, said Chris Rossi, dean of student life and engagement.

Beyond increased resources at Babson and Tufts, the two selective colleges are pursuing ways to ease students’ academic workload and involve faculty members in discussions about mental health. At Babson, Travia said he's seen an overall uptick in Babson faculty members referring students to mental health support services during the past three years.

Travia authored an American College Health Foundation paper in November that identified changing approaches to student and employee mental health care across higher education. He advocates for a more holistic view of campus wellness, that “blurs the lines between the inside and outside of the classroom experience.”

“The solution is and has to be more of a comprehensive mental health community-based approach to prevention,” Travia said. “On the environmental side … looking at the conditions on campus that could and should be examined -- the schedule, how the curriculum is structured, labs, libraries that are open 24 hours a day -- many things outside of the clinical side that should be examined more robustly.”

Tufts formed a mental health task force that in October delivered to the university a review of current mental health services available and recommendations for improvements, Rossi said. The task force’s report suggested Tufts adjust some aspects of its academic policies, such as its deadline for course withdrawal, which was pushed back to November starting in the 2019-20 academic year. The deadline was previously at the end of the semester, which added a “high-stakes decision” to some students’ plates at a time when stress is already compounding, Rossi said.

“Changing the academic withdrawal deadlines allows students to breathe at the end of the semester, not feel like the whole world is coming down on them at the same time,” Rossi said.

The task force also found that faculty members have a desire to be more involved with identifying and referring students to campus resources. Like many other institutions, Tufts doesn't have enough counseling staff to meet increasing demand. More training opportunities for faculty members on how to recognize students in distress and use "nonclinical intervention" to offer support to students could extend the university’s support beyond student affairs, Rossi said. According to the task force’s report, 70 percent of students on the university’s main campus said “emotional or mental difficulties” hurt their academic performance.

“Faculty members are very interested and engaged in the mental health task force findings, but also in the trainings, because it’s a communal interest point,” Rossi said.

Professors should be encouraged to include wellness messaging in their syllabi and offer office hours as a time to discuss stresses outside of academics, said Erica Riba, senior adviser for the Jed Foundation’s JED Campus program, one of the leading mental health and suicide prevention programs for colleges and universities that provides guidance to about 300 member institutions and more than three million students.

“Not every student needs therapy,” Riba said. “The more that we can instill confidence in the support and resources of faculty and staff, administrative support … if we can get everyone to practice these conversations and learn how to reach out, we’re encouraging a safe space just to chat with people.”

There are also ways professors can adjust their expectations for students during finals time to promote healthier practices, such as changing due dates from midnight to earlier in the day, which could encourage students to finish assignments and go to sleep earlier instead of waiting until the last minute, Riba said. There’s also discussion at Tufts about how degree programs can better coordinate exam times and due dates to reduce overlap, Rossi said.

Following its task force findings, Tufts has an opportunity to try alternative models to build mental health into the curriculum of its Experimental College, Rossi said.

Babson's wellness and prevention services has offered a noncredit course, Grit and Resiliency, each semester for three years, Travia said.

“It’s very skill-based, everything from teaching students how to deal with adversity and failure to embrace those things as a learning opportunity, to how to manage stress and anxiety and overcome challenges and barriers that they will face,” Travia said.

Riba emphasized that it’s not just small private colleges that are finding ways to incorporate academics into the discussion about mental health on campuses.

“Whether it’s a full training that allows you to practice conversations, spending the day learning the signs and symptoms … A lot of schools are getting very creative, no matter the size -- private and public, schools are making the effort,” Riba said.

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