Faculty Spotlight: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sometimes mistaken for the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during different times of the year, often associated with the changing of the seasons. Younger adults, specifically women, and individuals living farther from the equator are at a higher risk for developing SAD. Similar to depression, SAD shares many of the same symptoms, including sad or depressed mood, irritability, low energy, and feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt. However, SAD symptoms differ in that they include increased appetite, weight gain, and over-sleeping.1

Despite depression being more well-known, researchers have suggested SAD is more common among undergraduate populations.1 In one study, undergraduates with SAD scored high on cognitive failures (memory retrieval, perceptual discrimination, and attentional focus) similar to undergraduates with depression1, suggesting SAD can be as significant and debilitating as depression. It has been suggested that undergraduates may be experiencing higher rates of SAD during the winter months due to academic pressures of final exams and added stress from the holidays.2 However, research in an undergraduate population has shown that symptoms of SAD were highest and consistent through the months of December, January, and February, suggesting that SAD symptoms are not timed with exams and holidays.2

Common treatments for SAD include light therapy, medications, and therapy. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and being open to discussing of the impact seasonal affective disorder may have on undergraduates can serve to raise awareness and encourage students to reach out for additional support when needed.

1Sullivan, B. & Payne, T. W. (2007). Affective disorders and cognitive failures: A comparison of seasonal and nonseasonal depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 1663-1667.

2Rohan, S. T., & Sigmon, S. T. (2000). Seasonal mood patterns in a northeastern college sample. Journal of Affective Disorders, 59, 85-96.

Faculty Spotlight: Dating and Intimate Partner Violence

Dating violence, also known as intimate partner violence, includes controlling behavior, emotional and physical abuse, and aggressive behavior. Dating violence among college students is exceptionally high, ranging from 20-50%, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, sex, race, or background.1 College students are often entering and exiting relationships, sometimes for the first time, and healthy dating behavior may not even be known. Given the impact that dating violence may have on students, it is important that faculty and staff be aware of the warning signs dating violence, including excessive emails or texting, extreme jealousy, and false accusations.

Understanding students’ perceptions of domestic violence and dating violence may help faculty and staff increase awareness and support students. Research on beliefs around dating violence has indicated that college students often endorse the myth that women can find ways to get out of abusive relationships if they wanted.1 College student perceptions of women instigating fights leading to physical violence has also been endorsed.1 Unfortunately, this stigma around women not being able to help themselves, or perhaps instigating fights, can have negative consequence for women that do need help. The shame accompanied with the stigma may prevent or limit women from reaching out.

Men are also subject to stigma around dating violence. Media portrayals of men as aggressors may discount the fact that men are victims of dating violence. College students who reported beliefs of men being more dominant also indicated narrower views of dating violence.2 This could suggest that college students who have more education on dating violence may also have less stigmatized views of men as aggressors. The stigma around men as victims of dating violence is often accompanied with shame for men who experience dating violence from their partners.

What can you do for students who may be experiencing dating violence or intimate partner violence?

Lastly, just providing students with information around what dating violence is can be impactful – give them the chance to say something.

1Nabors, E. L., Dietz, T. L., & Jasinkski, J. L. (2006). Domestic violence beliefs and perceptions among college students. Violence and Victims, 21, 779-795.

2Jiao, Y., Sun, Y. I., Farmer, A. K., & Lin, K. (2016). College students’ definitions of intimate partner violence: A comparative study of three Chinese societies. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31, 1208-1229. doi: 10.1177/0886260514564162

Faculty Spotlight: Mentorship

Adjusting to the college lifestyle, whether students are freshmen or seniors, can be complicated and at times, overwhelming. Mental health problems are commonly associated with chronic problems, such as depression, anxiety, and stress, but it’s also important to consider the mental well-being of all college students through this transition. Aside from a change in academic responsibilities, students are shifting away from parental role models. As students continue to form their adult identity in college, faculty and staff mentorship may be of increasing importance.

Mentorship ranges from informal mentoring, which occurs more naturally and organically, or formal mentoring, where the mentorship relationship is established with a clear and communicated goal.1 Regardless of how formal the relationship is, mentorship can provide students with emotional, instrumental, and learning benefits. One of the unique aspects to mentorship is that the relationship ideally strengthens overtime, increasing the longevity of the benefits for the student.1 Research has found decreases in unexcused absences and tardiness among undergraduates who received out-of-class mentoring and increases in academic performance.1 One of the most important aspects to faculty/staff-student mentorship is the opportunity for students to have an older role model to talk to about mental health issues as some students may avoid utilizing mental health services for fear of stigma.

On the flip-side, student mentorship of other students or community members has also shown an increase in mental health benefits. Researchers found that through participating in Campus Corps, a youth-to-youth mentoring program, college students experienced higher self-esteem, and had stronger interpersonal and problem-solving skills.2 The mentorship relationship may also provide students the opportunity to expand their world-view.2

Mentoring for and by undergraduates have several benefits for both performance and mental health. As faculty and staff, it may serve students well to facilitate mentoring opportunities to provide services to the community as a mentor. Seattle has a number of opportunities for students to become active in the community, such as SPU’s own Center for Career and Calling, the Boys and Girls Club and the Empowering Mentor Program. Finally, as faculty and staff, it’s important to recognize the intrinsic value and benefit to mentoring undergraduates – a positive relationship with one adult role model can go a long way!

1The role of mentoring and college access and success (2011). Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).
2 Weiler, L., Haddock, S., Zimmerman, T. S., Krafchick, J., Henry, K., & Rudisill, S. (2013). Benefits derived by college students from mentoring at-risk youth in service learning. American Journal of Community Psychology, 52, 236-248. doi: 10.1007/s10464-013-9589-z

Faculty Spotlight: Perfectionism

As students begin the new school year, it is important to foster positive approaches to academics and the demands of college. Perfectionism, the tendency to set and hold unrealistically high expectations, is a prevalent phenomenon.1,2 Undergraduate students may be especially susceptible to perfectionism due to an increase in responsibilities and demands of college, such as new social, academic and financial stressors.2 These new responsibilities may contribute to the onset of distress in students, such as symptoms of anxiety or depression.2 Students may attempt to alleviate the distress of these new responsibilities through increasing their control of the demands placed on them. One way to assert control over various domains and responsibilities is through perfectionism.

While there are benefits to perfectionism, such as a high level of performance and an increased attention to detail, maladaptive perfectionism can result in excessive self-criticism and a general sense of inadequacy.1 Distressed college students may place too much emphasis on earning straight A’s or may spend too much time worrying about small details. This may increase their distress and the amount of time they are spending on assignments, thus creating a cycle of stress leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How can we combat perfectionism, while still helping students to be successful?  Self-compassion, defined as the awareness that disappointments and flaws are an inevitable part of the human experience and everyone deserves kindness, even the self, may provide a new perspective for students struggling to meet their own high demands.1 Self-compassion has specifically been identified as a possible mediator between maladaptive perfectionism and symptoms of depression in undergraduates.1 As a mediator, self-compassion may be able to help explain the relationship between perfectionism and depressive symptoms, suggesting that among perfectionistic students, as self-compassion scores are higher, depressive symptoms are lower. Similarly, increased resiliency-related behaviors, such as seeking social support when needed, has been linked to decreased distress among college students who exhibit maladaptive perfectionistic cognitions and behaviors.2 Social pressures related to perfectionism had the strongest relations between low levels of resiliency and high levels of symptoms of depression and anxiety.2

Among undergraduates, especially those considering graduate or professional school, academic performance is a constant concern. As we know perfectionism can have negative consequences on the wellness of students, it is important that faculty and staff try to promote an environment where academic success is supported, but constructs, such as self-compassion, are also facilitated. Modeling and discussing self-care with students, such as reminding students to reach out when feeling distressed, may aid in a more balanced approach to the demands of academics, preventing maladaptive perfectionistic consequences (symptoms of depression and anxiety). Lastly, recognizing that all students begin the college experience with varying expectations and emotional health can be beneficial in faculty and staff expectations of students.

1Mehr, K. E., & Adams, A. C. (2016). Self-compassion as a mediator of maladaptive perfectionism and depressive symptoms in college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(2), 132-145. doi: 1.1080/87.568225.2016.1140991

2 Kilbert, J., Lamis, D. A., Collins, W., Smalley, K. B., Warren, J. C., Yancy, C. T., & Winterowd, C. (2014). Resilience mediates the relations between perfectionism and college student distress. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92, 75-92. doi: 10.1002/j.556-6676.2014.00132.x

Faculty Spotlight: Natural Environment Benefits

As technology has increasingly become a prominent part of everyday life, outdoor activities often take a backseat. Arguably, students spend more time viewing other’s experiences on Facebook, Instagram and other social media than they do creating their own. It’s been documented that heavy use of technology and social media are linked to increased depressive and anxiety symptoms. Taking a break from technology and spending time indoors may have mental health benefits as spending time participating in outdoor activities and natural environments have been linked to increased self-efficacy, mindfulness and concentration.1,2

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that they can complete a task or succeed. Unsurprisingly, a higher sense of self-efficacy may be a preventative factor against the negative mental health impact of stress and other stressors students may face over the summer. As students are accustomed to their performance being measured by academics throughout the school year, students may find increased self-efficacy from physical and leisurely activities, such as hiking, camping, swimming, volleyball, and other outdoor experiences and sports.

Similarly, mindfulness, which refers to an individual’s ability to be present in the moment, may also see a boost when in natural environments. The college environment requires constant multi-tasking and can keep students in a perpetual state of heightened arousal due to the flexibility required to perform well in multiple classes and extracurriculars.1 In comparison, natural environments allow for more sustained attention and self-directed attention to the individual’s own thoughts and feelings.1

Attentional restoration theory (ART) suggests that urban environments, such as college campuses, may induce cognitive fatigue, impacting students’ ability to concentrate.2 As natural environments are considered restorative due to the decrease in executive-based attention that they require, it is beneficial for students to take time away from technology and urban environments to explore the outdoors, with summer being the prime time for outdoor experiences.

Summer is the ideal time for students to reset, relax, and prepare for the next year of school. Some students will utilize this time to plan outdoor adventures and immerse themselves in restorative environments. However, it is important to reach out and promote the mental health benefits of outdoor activities and environments to students that either reside in urban environments or may not realize the mental health benefits of the outdoors. Fortunately, reaping the benefits of natural environments can be as easy as reading a book outdoors instead of indoors. For students and faculty residing in Seattle over the summer, although SPU is in an urban environment, Seattle has a natural abundance of outdoor opportunities with easy access to parks and water. Lastly, it’s important to benefit from the sunshine in Seattle while it lasts!

1Mutz, M. & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.009

2 Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1178), 1-4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

Faculty Spotlight: Summer Mental Health

Summer is the three months out of the year that, for many college students, is a time for fun recreational activities and a breather from the stress of classes. However, moving away from campus for the summer, leaving the productive academic environment, and changing relationships due to distance may actually be stressful. With approximately one-third of U.S. college students experiencing depressive symptoms (2013 National College Health Assessment), it is important to be aware of the potential mental health challenges college students will face over the summer.

Depression is a mental health condition, prevalent among college students. Symptoms of depression range from persistently sad, anxious, or "empty" mood, feelings of hopelessness, decreased energy, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. The transition from the routine and high-stress environment of college life to a less structured summer, can be stressful. The link between stress and depression can be seen through a shift from healthy and adaptive coping strategies during stressful events or transitions, allowing depressive symptoms to persist. The stress, coping, and depressive symptom cycle can be reoccurring, having a detrimental impact on mood, life satisfaction and productivity.

However, there are strategies students can employ prior to and during summer break to mitigate the potential negative consequences of the summer transition. Planning for activities, such as an internship or job, can stave off the anxiety-producing feeling of unproductivity. Additionally, students should be encouraged to take the summer break to explore and do the things they are unable to during the school year, such as camping, physical exercise, or making their way through a fun book list. Summer goals may be especially helpful for those students who are involved in multiple on campus activities and perform best under college stress.

Anticipating changing relationships due to summer break may also be beneficial for students. Students living on campus will be accustomed to living and being surrounded by peers. The transition from this stimulating social environment may be stressful for some, producing feelings of loneliness. Similarly, as relationships become strained due to distance, it’s important for students to be aware of the potential for relationships to change in intensity and closeness. Technology and social media may be helpful in staving off some of the feelings of loneliness, however, social media can also be anxiety producing as students view and see their friends having fun without them. Open discussions and realistic social expectations for summer may better prepare students for the shift from school to summer.

Summer mental health and prevention are important for college students as they will not have access to college campus mental health services, such as the counseling center. Fortunately, students can employ strategies such as summer goal planning and facilitating conversations around changing relationships to circumvent depressive symptoms.

Faculty Spotlight: Technology and Mental Health

There’s no denying the ubiquity of technology in students’ daily lives. We are already beginning to see how technology, especially social networking sites, impacts how we live, work, and communicate with each other. Given that technology impacts many other parts of our lives, it makes sense that technology also has an impact on students’ mental health.

Emerging research suggests that technology has both positive and negative impacts on mental health. Technology use has been linked to depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Sleep can also ben impacted by technology use. Using a smartphone or tablet right before bed can make it harder to get to sleep. Technology has also been related to addictive qualities both with games and checking your devices.

Technology and social media also impact how students communicate by allowing 24/7 access to their peers. Rates of cyberbullying in college students are lower than those among high school-ers, but research suggests that almost 1 in 5 college students experiences cyberbullying. Social media has also been related to isolation from others because rather than connecting with others in person, students are spending more time online. Associated with isolation, social media has been related to the phenomenon of “Fear of Missing Out” or FOMO. FOMO is when it appears that others are having fun without you, and your worry about being left out.

On the other hand, technology can also have positive effects in students’ lives. Many students use technology to stay connected with friends and family. Technology also offers students the ability to access information quickly and can be a source of support. The mental health field is in the nascent stages of embracing technology as a means to provide services to more people. Students can use their smartphone for a wide range of supportive activities, like using a relaxation app, engaging with an online support network, or talking to their therapist. Technology can also encourage students to be active or get involved in their community through activity trackers and events promoted on their social networking sites.

As technology continues to change and grow, we will likely see different effects on how students use technology and how it impacts mental health. The bottom line is that technology and social media can be both positive, providing support and connection, and negative, a platform for cyberbullying and FOMO – it comes down to how it’s being used.

Faculty Spotlight: Mental Health Stigma

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Mental health problems affect many college students. According to a national survey, 27% of students reported they experience depression, 24% experience bipolar disorder, 11% experience anxiety, and 12% experience other mental health problems, including eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

Stigma refers to the negative attitudes and misperceptions about people with mental health conditions. It can lead to stereotypes, like “people with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable.” Some students may encounter stigma against mental health from their family, friends, and community. Others may experience self-stigma, meaning that they internalize the stigma against mental illness that is prevalent in society. Self-stigma leads to lower self-esteem, lower self-efficacy, and hopelessness.

Stigma is a significant barrier to seeking treatment among college students. In fact, 36% of students with mental health problems noted that stigma stops them from seeking help. Mental health stigma also differentially impacts students from different racial backgrounds. Research shows that stigma predicts less help seeking for mental health problems most strongly among Arabic and Asian American students, followed by African American and mixed race students.

One of the best ways to combat stigma is to be informed. Here’s what faculty and staff can do to combat the stigma against mental illness:

  • Know the common warning signs of mental illness
  • Be proactive in connecting students to resources and encouraging students to seek help
    • 22% of students say they learn about mental health resources from faculty or staff
  • Reach out to students to voice your concerns
    • Try saying “I’ve noticed that you’re [late to class more, look more fatigued]. Is everything ok?”
    • “I’ve noticed you aren’t acting like yourself. Is something going on?”
  • Know that mental health conditions are real and as serious as physical health issues
  • Understand the students with mental health problems are able to be successful in school

 

 

 

Faculty Spotlight: Relationship Problems

College is a time when students are having to balance and maintain many different relationships at once, with roommates, family, romantic partners, friends, and with faculty and staff. Relationship problems among college students are relatively common, and about one-third of college students report having problems in their roommate and romantic relationships. Relationship problems can also interfere with students’ academic success, making them important to address.

There are many different types of problems that students can have in relationships. Some may have verbal arguments or physical fights with others, some may have trouble trusting others, some may have difficulty communicating with others, and some may even be in abusive relationships. Common themes that come up among roommate conflicts are cleanliness, noise levels, or having friends over. These problems along with many problems that students may face in their friendships can be solved through talking with their resident advisor or a trusted third-party or learning some effective communication skills.

Some students have difficulty communicating with their friends, family members, or professors. While some students who have difficulty with communication can benefit from some simple communication skills, others may have larger problems with social communication that lead to significant impairment in relationships. Common signs of students with social communication problems or deficits include:

  • Language or communication: using very literal language, difficulty modulating the volume of their voice, difficulty understanding jokes, metaphors, idioms, or other subtleties of language
  • Social interaction: difficulty making eye contact, difficulty making friends, difficulty initiating, maintaining, or ending a conversation, difficulty understanding social norms, difficulty understanding other’s emotions
  • Behavior: interrupts others, becomes tangential in answering questions, strong reactions to sensory cues (lights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch), may engage in self-soothing behavior, like rocking or tapping, and fixation on certain concepts, objects, or patterns.

As faculty and staff, you can support students with social communication deficits by meeting with the student privately if behavioral issues are disrupting the classroom. Work with the student to solve these problems in order to help the student succeed. If the student has classroom accommodations, make sure to respect them and talk with the student to make sure you are both on the same page.

Other students may be in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships may take many forms and can include verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Some common signs that a student may be in an abusive relationship, include: excessive lateness or unexplained absences, frequent illnesses, unexplained injuries or bruising, changes in appearance, being distracted during class, drops in productivity, and being sensitive about discussing their relationships. If you are concerned about a student who may be in an abusive relationship, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Meet with the student in private
  • Recognize that the student may be fearful or vulnerable
  • Remember that abusive relationships involve complex dynamics, including high levels of denial and may be difficult to change
  • Refer the student to the counseling center
  • Encourage the student to connect with people they trust

There are also some things to avoid when talking with students who are in abusive relationships. Try to avoid downplaying the situation, lecturing the student about poor judgment, or expecting the student to make quick changes.

Relationship problems for college students exist along an entire spectrum, and there are many different reasons that students could be having difficulty with others. As faculty and staff the biggest thing that you can do is meet with students privately, in order to understand what is going on and offer support.

Faculty Spotlight: Emotion Regulation

College students face many stressors on a day-to-day basis. They may be leaving home for the first time, have intense pressure to do well academically, are developing a plan for their future career, may be trying to establish a romantic or social life, and are finding a balance between all of these things. In fact, many reports have shown that college students are experiencing more stress now than in years past. Furthermore, college students’ ratings of their emotional health has been decreasing for the past 49 years!

Often when students are stressed, they experience more negative emotions. Experiencing intense and overwhelming negative emotions can be aversive, so many students try to get rid of their negative feelings. Emotion regulation is a term that is used to describe a person’s efforts to manage, change, or avoid emotional experiences. College students use a lot of different strategies to regulate their emotions, and some of those strategies are healthy, while others are unhealthy.

Healthy emotion regulation strategies do not cause harm and can help diffuse strong negative emotions, allowing for a greater understanding of what caused a particular emotion. Examples of healthy emotion regulation strategies are:

  • Talking to friends
  • Exercising
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Taking a break when it’s needed

Unhealthy emotion regulation strategies are ways of dealing with emotions that may lead to harm, damage, or additional stress. These strategies may also lead to avoidance of problems that will eventually need a solution. Examples of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies that college students use are:

  • Alcohol and substance use
  • Self-injury
  • Avoidance or withdrawal
  • Physical aggression
  • Binge eating and/or purging

Many college students use a mix of both healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation strategies. Some use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies may be normal as part of the developmental process and learning how to effectively cope with stress. However, there are also times when students’ use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies becomes a problem. This usually happens when these unhealthy strategies interfere with students’ academics, work, social relationships, physical health, or spiritual health. If you notice a student who is struggling with managing their emotions or their use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies is becoming a problem, consider reaching out to them to provide support.