Exams and mental health: a visible problem

Carrie Smith

It’s 3 a.m.

Bottles of energy shots and coffee cups strewn are around the dorm room and piles of flashcards and notes are scattered on the desk— an image most college students can envision.

Exams are a common cause of this picture; the idea that staying up late several nights in a row to study for a big test or work on a big final paper will lead to a high grade.

This mentality may look good on paper to achieve high grades and success, but according to mental health professionals, could lead to a significantly serious outcome for the already stressed-out college student.

Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, have become more visible in college students throughout the past several years due to a noticeable increase in college-aged students suffering from or being diagnosed with a mental health illness, according to Jenny Preston, a licensed professional clinical counselor formerly at AU.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, with 75 percent experiencing their first episode of anxiety by age 22, the age of a typical college senior.

In addition, 13 percent of college students have been diagnosed with a mental health condition similar to anxiety in the last year.

Preston regularly sees students from the College of Wooster mostly seeking help for stress and anxiety management, aside from eating disorders and relationship counseling.

Preston said that anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, initially develop because of a change of environment and heightened expectations in college.

“I think some of it is an adjustment to a new environment, you’re coming from an environment that you’ve lived in your whole life up until that point, and any time we do that there is definitely an adjustment period there,” she said.

In addition, Preston also lists “increased pressure of academia” and “a change of relationship patterns” as some of the top causes for anxiety and depression among college students. She also said the most visible growth in anxiety and depression in students has been observed around midterms and final exams.

Many students develop anxiety and depression while in college, however, some students come in to college already experiencing mental health issues that become worse as classes begin, Preston said.

Sophomore Ruby Congrove said she has experienced anxiety and depression since the seventh-grade and has seen her anxiety levels increase drastically since coming to college.

“It got much worse just because how all the classes are and remembering to keep everything in order and honestly just the social aspect of college made my anxiety a lot worse,” she explained.

Students like Congrove, Preston said, are some of the main reasons why mental health in college students has become a topic for discussion as campus counseling centers across the country are becoming overwhelmed.

As counseling services are increasingly being sought out by students for guidance on their mental health issues, other areas on campus are experiencing a wide range of students seeking help as well.

Leanne Conway, an academic adviser here at AU, said students coming to the academic advising center seeking help with their academics and degree planning are also looking to alleviate their anxiety and stress in college.

Though the academic advisers mostly help freshmen with adjusting to college life, Conway said they also offer mental health advice and support for upperclassmen as well.

“I see second-year education and nursing students and then transfer students of all majors so it is not uncommon for me to have these conversations with students that are not first-year students,” Conway said. “As far as the other advisers, they commonly have these conversations with their first-year students but it is not uncommon for them to have a past student come back to them because they are comfortable talking with advisers about those things.”

Even though the heightened workload creates anxiety and stress during the regular school year, Conway said she has seen a noticeable trend around the AU campus of heightened anxiety and depression during the middle and end of the semesters.

Much of this anxiety and depression Preston said is not the general mental health issues shared by some college students, however, but situational anxiety brought on by midterms and final exams.

Preston said there is a difference in terms of generalized versus situational mental health issues and used anxiety to explain that difference.

“Generalized anxiety is kind of anxious about anything and all the things, it’s kind of just a fear response of always kind of being worried about something, sometimes it is not anything in particular or anything specific, it’s just a generalized anxiety,” she said. “Whereas kind of your situational anxiety there’s a trigger or there’s an event, something the anxiety is based on…where outside of taking a test someone doesn’t typically have anxiety symptoms, it’s only in that very particular environment.”

Preston also said people with Type A personalities, those who are “already anxiously wound pretty tight,” are more likely to experience higher amounts of stress and anxiety around midterms and finals than usual.

“I think some of this comes down to personality traits, I think a lot of Type A personalities are very perfectionist based, kind of a high anxiety level just already, and then when you put them in an environment kind of performance, that increases anxiety tenfold most of the time,” she said.

Although not affected by perfectionism, Congrove said her anxiety tends to get worse around midterms and finals due to how “content-heavy” the middle of the semester already is before adding on exams and final projects.

Congrove also said she tends to see a change in her friends’ stress and anxiety around midterms and finals as well, hanging out with them mostly to study rather than socialize.

“I would definitely say there is a lot more stress and there is a lot more running around trying to get things turned in and definitely a lot more studying and getting on top of work,” she said.

As AU students are seeing a noticeable change in their peers, staff and faculty are noticing their students becoming more stressed as well.

Conway said she commonly sees students coming in to the academic advising center seeking help with “dealing with the stress of it all,” looking for guidance on topics such as how to start “studying for three tests at a time.”

If students leave their mental health go unchecked for too long, however, Preston said they may start to see their habits, whether academic, social, or personal, change for the worse.

“Specifically with anxiety and depression, people tend to get overwhelmed and just not complete assignments or fail to do on a test what they might have been able to do previously, and that kind of feeds into that anxiety loop of not doing well, and that kind of causes you to seclude from your friends too which isn’t helpful either…it kind of gets into a cycle,” Preston said.

“Overwhelmed” and “anxious” are just some of the feelings shared by most college students around exam time, but according to professionals like Conway and Preston, there are many techniques that students can do to alleviate these emotions, to study smart and obtain successful test results.

Dealing with Mental Health Issues During Exam Time

Both Conway and Preston offered their advice for students when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety, whether it is generalized or situational.
Some of the biggest tips that Conway and Preston suggested to curb the effects of mental health issues include limiting or even cutting out caffeine intake entirely, effective time management to balance general wellness and college and seeking counseling to better control their mental health issues.
Preston said students need to be “mindful of their caffeine intake,” as its can increase anxiety “by tenfold,” increasing the heart rate and the likelihood of panic attacks as a result.

Additionally, Conway said it “is actually advised to avoid caffeine before an exam” to keep from “putting the brain in overdrive.”

For balancing general wellness and college work, Preston suggests students manage their time to get the recommended amount of sleep while also maintaining a semi-healthy diet and socializing with friends to keep themselves from developing unhealthy habits.

Likewise, Conway also suggests several techniques for managing the college workload to keep from becoming overwhelmed, such as insisting that studying should be a “process, not an event,” stressing that students should be “studying all the time in little bits” rather than cramming right before a big exam and that students take time to destress and treat themselves, breaking up the time between studying for the last test and diving into studying for the next test.

“Your brain can’t function when its deprived of sleep, so just getting a good night sleep, eating something nutritious, and preparing…going to class regularly, following up with your professor with questions, if you have a quiz or a study session leading up to an exam and you still have questions, go to your professor’s office hours, talk with them after class, make sure you are understanding it,” Conway said.

Even if students are doing well in classes, Conway recommended students contact tutoring services to get a tutor to maintain their grades and attend drop-in tutoring for specific classes.

Conway also suggested tutoring for soft skills such as note-taking, test taking strategies, study skills, and time management for students to improve upon soft skills that will be essential for life beyond college.

Some of the other services and events the academic advising center offers around finals, Conway said, include therapy dogs and “stress less events” to get students out of their rooms and around others who may share a common stress about exams.

“In previous semesters around finals we have offered ‘stress less’ events where we have different giveaways, we did yoga last semester, we had coloring giveaways, we had donuts with the advisers so you could just come up and just hang out with us rather than if you need to meet with us, we don’t need to necessarily talk about anything academic related,” she said.

As a student dealing with the stress and anxiety created by midterms and finals, Congrove said she has found time management helpful to remain level-headed in an otherwise overwhelming time.

“Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of time management, I’ve been scheduling in times to study for each class so I know that I am staying on top of everything and I am making sure I am not overbooking myself,” Congrove said.

If self-help is not working, there are other options at Ashland University and in the Ashland area for students to explore, according to Preston and Conway, that might lead them to greater help to develop the coping mechanisms they need to succeed.

On campus, Conway explained, students can seek out counselor support from Oscar McKnight in Counseling Services or the Smetzer Counseling Center at the Ashland Theological Seminary.

In addition, through doing a Google search, at least nineteen different results come up for counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists in Ashland alone, which can be sorted through research to decide which services they offer best fit the individual person.

Despite having several outlets to receive help through talking with a mental health professional, Preston said that students often do not take advantage of these services because of the “stigma behind getting treatment,” adding to the 40 percent of college students in America who fail to seek help for their mental health issues.

This stigma, Preston explained, is the belief that if someone needs to seek treatment for their mental health, they must be “defective” or “crazy.” Preston said that this mentality developed in our culture due to the mentality that people must “pull yourself up by the boot straps and do it yourself.”

To deal with the stigma and “normalize mental health,” Preston suggests students start talking about it to make it just as normal as going to the doctor.

“We don’t expect people to fix a broken arm themselves and nor should we expect people who are struggling with mental health concerns to ‘tough it out’,” Preston said.

Students may feel alone in dealing with their stress and anxiety in college, but there are people around them, including AU faculty and staff like Conway who were once students in college, who are able to relate to the stress and anxiety they are having and support them through this difficult time.

“Know yourself, recognize when your stressors are flaring up and then knowing what relieves your stress and making the effort to incorporate that somehow into your daily or weekly, or however often you want to do it, schedule so you can really summon that stress and still be a functioning human, because you can’t be go, go, go all the time, you gotta take a break and give your mind a break and treat yourself a little bit.”