Are Universities Helping Students Manage Anxiety?
This article is part three of a four-part series. To read from the beginning, start here.
So far in this series, we’ve discussed the mischief that FOMO works on the mind and how artists, designers, and other ambitious young professionals can reform their daily habits to make room for peace and productivity in their lives. Of course, any comprehensive solution to anxiety should go beyond the individual. Schools, churches, communities, local governments, and other institutions need to develop holistic, fact-based solutions that can be widely implemented, assessed, and refined as our society addresses the very real challenge of a more anxious population.
Journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis encourages us to look at the worrying situation with clear eyes, citing an alarming surge in anxiety and depression among high school and college students, which lasts far into adulthood. “Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States,” he writes, “affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely occurs, anxiety is often seen as a less serious problem.”
What can and should academic institutions do to address this oft-unnoticed and unseen mental health epidemic? In the coming year, schools in the U.K. are implementing a massive new initiative to address mental health in the classroom, recruiting and training thousands of counseling professionals “to counsel anxious pupils, in a bid to tackle soaring levels of mental distress and self-harm, with every school also asked to have a designated teacher in charge of mental health.”
And yet, some universities in the U.S. seem to be worsening the issue of student anxiety. Across higher education, classrooms are saturated in toxicity and division. Educators distract from education to advance personal crusades. Scandals rock athletics programs. Public lectures turn violent. Activism, even for a good cause, has become admixed with fear and put a halt to the important work of preparing students to thrive in their chosen professions. I understand that institutions of higher learning exist, in part, to invite engagement with ongoing cultural realities, but the central academic mission of universities seems increasingly forgotten, replaced by a roil of anxiety-inducing controversy and discord.
This poisonous miasma has had disastrous results. Students are graduating with a dearth of soft or hard skills, and the U.S. is quickly losing its preeminence as the world leader in higher education, as more and more international students seek their education and career preparation elsewhere.
SCAD, however, has found a way to attract more students from the U.S. and abroad, increasing international student enrollment more than 10 percent since last fall. How has this growth happened? Because we intentionally create a positively oriented university environment, the very idea of which is embedded in the language of the SCAD mission:
SCAD exists to prepare talented students for professional careers, emphasizing learning through individual attention in a positively oriented university environment.
This meaning-packed mission centers on talented students (the shining stars of the SCAD universe), professional careers (evidenced by the 98 percent employment rate of our graduates), learning through individual attention (achieved, in part, by freeing up Fridays, to allow professors to conduct extra help sessions and one-on-one tutoring), and then there’s this last essential phrase:
“in a positively oriented university environment”
What does it mean for a university’s atmosphere and climate to be positively oriented? A study by the Georgia Department of Education defines “school climate” as comprising four areas:
· student safety
· quality instruction
· supportive relationships
· nurturing physical environment
The same study found that an intentional organizational focus on these four areas results in:
· fewer social and behavioral issues
· increased class attendance
· improved GPA across all subjects and all students
In other words, the desire for a positively oriented university environment at SCAD is not mere linguistic window dressing — this focus has a direct impact on student mental health and high retention, graduation, and employment rates for SCAD graduates.
The most immediate and urgent way our university creates a positively oriented university environment, especially for those students struggling with anxiety and anxious feelings, is through SCAD Counseling and Student Support Services, or CS3, which serves more than 30 percent of the SCAD student population — about twice the national average for university counseling services, which is both a reflection of the higher frequency of anxiety and depression among creative persons and the university’s enhanced efforts to reach as many students as possible who need and desire counseling. This office is no mere auxiliary service at the university but absolutely central to advancing the SCAD mission and ensuring the health and wellness of our students.
Last academic year, SCAD counselors recorded a record 15,000 interactions with our students, facilitated by a fulltime staff of eight licensed and credentialed counselors and two accommodation staff members who help ensure students with learning disabilities thrive in a demanding academic environment.
“SCAD students are some of the most driven students on the planet,” says Dr. Christopher Corbett, director of CS3. In his view, social media has made the professional and the personal far more interconnected for today’s students. There are no walls, no boundaries, no quiet places to seek refuge from work and social interaction. A creative career demands the most of mind and heart both, after all. “Many of our students face anxiety when introducing and pitching their designs and creations. Many face challenges with managing all the competing emotions and expectations,” he says. Services such as CS3 provide vital group and individual counseling and workshops to help students manage and overcome their anxieties.
Fear not, students! The alumni who once sought counseling at CS3 have gone on to some of the most prominent and lauded careers among our graduates. “These are national award winners, leading innovators in their respective fields,” Dr. Corbett says. “They go on to lead industry and create world innovations that have a profound impact for generations to come.”
Counseling forms an essential cornerstone of the positively oriented university environment of SCAD. In the fourth and final installment in this series, I’ll discuss how our university creates a positive atmosphere in less obvious ways, all to ensure students are joyful, productive, and focused on their intellectual and personal development.