Therapy Horses, Bubble-Wrap Rooms Aim To Relieve College Students’ End-Of-Semester Stress

By Leonor Vivanco
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As the semester nears its end, and students pull all-nighters to cram for exams, type papers and finish projects that weigh heavily on final grades, colleges in the Chicago area are taking steps to help students manage stress.


Stephanie Delgado can feel the stress of her to-do list as she works to finish the semester at Roosevelt University: three essays, a presentation and exams.

To escape the pressure, the 20-year-old college junior, who also works as a restaurant cashier to help pay for school, sculpted a chunk of blue Play-Doh into Popplio, a Pokemon character. She was at a table next to other students who colored and decorated cookies before two miniature therapy horses wearing sneakers trotted into the room Wednesday for the university’s De-Stress Fest.

“I know I still have to do all that work, but coming here I’m able to take some time off to hang out with friends, have fun and empty my mind for a little bit,” said Delgado, who lives on the Southwest Side. “It’s like a refresh. My mind is nice and clear so when I go to start my homework, I’m well focused.”

As the semester nears its end, and students pull all-nighters to cram for exams, type papers and finish projects that weigh heavily on final grades, colleges in the Chicago area are taking steps to help students manage stress. It’s part of a broader approach to focus on students’ mental health and expand proactive outreach efforts instead of waiting for students to seek help.

Local schools this week are offering activities ranging from animal visits at Roosevelt to a bubble-wrapped room at the University of Illinois at Chicago to the long-standing tradition of a stress-busting primal scream at Northwestern University.

“The ultimate goal, I think, is to decrease stress in order to enhance academic success and overall performance,” said Ann Diamond, outreach coordinator at Roosevelt University’s counseling center. “Also, it’s to remind students about the community of support available to all of them here at the university.”

Without these types of resources, students would have to deal with stress on their own, and some might not find a way to cope at all, she said.

Nearly 32 percent of students reported stress and 23 percent said anxiety affected their academic performance, according to a spring 2016 survey by the American College Health Association of more than 95,000 students at institutions nationwide. Those figures are up from five years earlier, when 27.5 percent of respondents felt stress and 19 percent said anxiety affected their performance.

The 2016 survey also showed 85 percent of students said they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do within the past 12 months. In the past year, 17 percent of students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety, nearly 14 percent for depression and 8 percent for panic attacks. In the 2011 survey, 12 percent were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety, nearly 11 percent for depression and 5 percent for panic attacks.

At Northwestern, “because of the hectic academic pace that exists here, it is stressful and very pressure-packed,” university spokesman Alan Cubbage said.

Students can blow off steam with a visit from miniature horses Friday and release their frustration through a campuswide scream, in which students let out a collective yell at 9 p.m. Sunday before finals week. Next week, a number of activities such as Lego building, board games, midnight coffee breaks and late-night breakfast are planned for exam relief.

“It’s just a way of making sure our students have the opportunity to take a break from what is honestly a pretty intense week,” Cubbage said.

But one critic questioned whether such stress-busting activities are effective in helping students.

Clay Routledge, psychology professor at North Dakota State University, believes universities should be promoting psychological strength and resilience, not coddling students.

“I’m not ignorant to the fact there are vulnerable students that need services,” he said. “I’m not against that at all. My criticism is: Are we promoting more broadly a culture of sensitivity and victimhood than we need to do?”

Many colleges and universities are becoming more than educational institutions and overreaching by not letting students figure things out on their own, he said.

“We need to promote toughness and strength, and we know from decades of research that humans are extremely resilient,”

Routledge said. “You have to have real stressors in life. You have to fail. You have to be embarrassed and you have to face situations where you’re wrong and you’re challenged, and you’ll be strong as a result.”

But teaching college students healthful stress-management skills is important so they can take care of themselves later in life, said S. Craig Rooney, director of behavioral health services at the University of Missouri Student Health Center and chairman of the mental health section of the American College Health Association.

“If we didn’t offer students opportunities to learn self-care, we would be missing a critical part of their education: namely, how to negotiate the stresses of adult contemporary life in ways that are not self-destructive,” Rooney said in an email.

Loyola University Chicago offers ongoing counseling groups to help students better manage anxiety and depression, relieve stress and focus on self-care. Similarly, UIC has workshops throughout the year to teach students coping strategies.

“The goal is to support students, to promote a sense of well-being,” said David deBoer, associate director of Loyola’s Wellness Center. “Our hope would be as a secondary benefit it’s going to help them do better academically because they’re in a better physical and emotional place of higher well-being.”

The series of events UIC hosts during finals week helps junior Liz Huss manage stress in a healthful way.

Students got a visit from comfort dogs Wednesday and are invited next week to pop bubble wrap at the student center, get chair massages, do candlelight yoga and leave notes of encouragement for fellow students.

“I like to take 10, 15, 20 minutes to rejuvenate, reflect and relax, and these events really help with that,” said Huss, an accounting major.

For Andersonville resident Rob Chesler, a junior at Roosevelt, stress can motivate him to get his work done. But he also welcomed the distraction of the De-Stress Fest, during which he took a selfie with Lunar, the oldest miniature horse from the Barrington, Ill.-based nonprofit Mane in Heaven.

“If you’re living in this world of hard work every second of every hour of your life, then you’re not going to be happy and you’re just going to be all about work,” he said. “If you have little horses every now and then, you have moments where you can just breathe and enjoy life.”

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