We need to develop a wellness culture on campus before finals week—not in the middle of crisis


Kamrin Baker

A photo shopped image of a woman, indicating that she is stressed
Students need a de-stress culture all semester long. Graphic by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

De-Stress Fest is one of my favorite programs on campus every year. (In fact, the Gateway is a part of De-Stress Fest this year! Come snag some coffee from us Dec. 12 from 9-11 a.m. in Milo Bail—but I digress).

When I was a freshman and learned that UNO would bring therapy dogs to campus during finals, I was in awe. “This was the pinnacle of mental healthcare,” I thought. It wasn’t until I was actually in the thick of it that I realized, no matter how wonderful and thoughtful these events were, we still had a systemic mental health crisis running rampant right under our noses, and coloring books and snack breaks were not going to be the answer.

Bill Pickett, Director of Student Involvement and key coordinator for De-Stress Fest said he agrees that students need access to mental healthcare but hopes social programs at the university can encourage students to seek the help they need.

“It’s not a perfect science, and you’re right, these events do not cure mental health [conditions],” Pickett said. “I think [those with] mental health issues need to utilize our mental health professional team in the counseling office. In the past, we would select events from student feedback on surveys and at events. I’ve personally had students tell me many of these events have helped. Some even crying and emotional and said it sounds dumb, but playdoh, pizza, and coffee was the thing they needed at that point in time.”

One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Of those students, many of them report high levels of stress and concerns over academic performance at the peak of their triggers, according to the American Institute of Stress.

The staggering statistics presented about college students with mental health conditions have almost desensitized me to the issue. We laugh about it in meme-format online. I crack jokes regularly about how I carry my anxiety meds with me in every bag I own. I have been in classes where a professor will tell the group in the first week of class that the course will make us all cry. While mental illness may not be as stigmatized as it used to be, it is still a public health crisis.

Marcia Adler, Ph.D, RN, a public health instructor and former director of student health services at UNO, said she finds De-Stress Fest to be a great source of “camaraderie for students, showing them they aren’t alone in their feelings.” However, she said, the intervention in student stress needs to be more of a mindset shift than a programming schedule.

“I think we need to start way before challenging times,” Adler said. “We need to set the table for students to recognize stress in themselves, so we are discouraging this big scramble at the end. We need to build a community around supporting each other in healthier numbers all the way along. It needs to be a paradigm shift that says, ‘it’s OK to slow down and take care of myself, to make choices about what works for me.’”

Well, how do we do that?

“Sleep,” Adler said. “Some people will say ‘oh, I’m 20, I’ll sleep when I’m in the rest home,’ but physiologically, our bodies need sleep. Our brain needs that rest, because in essence, our brain filters what we’ve learned for the day so we can retrieve that information when we need it.”

Adler said the best thing students can do during finals is to get enough rest, fuel the body with food and water and simply be present to do their best.

These small fixes are extremely attainable on an institutional level, as well. UCLA is home to specially designed nap pods that are strewn about campus, and students can sign up for a happiness challenge, where they focus on wellness efforts—both mental and physical—as a community, according to the Los Angeles Times.

However, students also need accessible professional counseling and psychological support to regularly practice proper wellness and self-care.

The average ratio of students to counseling professionals in colleges and universities is 1,737 to one, according to the American Institute of Stress. UNO students are only eligible for eight to 10 free counseling sessions on campus, when most students say they need more help than that. College health centers across the country face annual budget cuts—and mental healthcare even faces extinction in some schools, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Most universities are doing something, but that something is not enough.

Are mental health conditions still so stigmatized by our institutions that they are ashamed to confront the crisis? Are students’ lives and mental wellbeing unimportant to the moneymaking powers that be? What will it take for us to pursue a paradigm shift that actually falls under the ‘connect, take care, get help’ motto of our university?

Adler said: “One of the things I say to my students in every class is this: ‘Think about someone you know who has had a heart attack. What does your family or your church or your community do for that person?’ They say that they bake a cake, send a card and check in on them, right? But then I ask: ‘What do you do for someone who struggles with depression? What does your family or your community do for that person?’ They get talked about, or they get blamed for certain things. We need to fix that whole scenario so we can be supported. And I don’t mean we need to baby people and take care of them all the time, but we need to provide services for them, we need to empower them.”

This year, while we do have the fun, community-building privileges of puppy dogs, crafts, yoga and snacks, I urge students to look deeper into their student services and ask: What is my community doing to help me?