Logan Carpenter (MA, Texas State University, 2018) is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Correspondence: Logancarp02@gmail.com. HASTAC: https://www.hastac.org/u/logancarpenter
Lauren Lee (BA, Texas State University, 2016) is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org. HASTAC: https://www.hastac.org/u/laurenlee
Both authors contributed equally to the creation of this post.
Stress Relief at the Collegiate Level: The Importance of Practicing Gratitude
In the United States, 43.8 million (or 1 in 5) adults every year experience mental health issues. Of the range of mental health, depression is the number one debilitating mental health concern worldwide, along with stress and anxiety (NAMI, n.d.; APA, 2013). Now, add in the stress of a college degree at any level, and those statistics rise. 40% of college students deal with mild mental health issues, while 20% deal with chronic mental health issues, meaning more than half of our collegiate population deals with things like anxiety (41.6%) and depression (36.4%) (APA, 2013; Brown, 2016). Anxiety and depression affect student’s academic performance including receiving a lower grade on an exam or important project, receiving an incomplete, or dropping a course and the numbers continue to increase every year (Brown, 2016).
Graduate school may also increase students’ mental health issues. Recently, a higher education article published by The Atlantic (2018) cited the rigorous nature of graduate course requirements, labor expectations, little pay, student debt, and the lack of sleep and/or social outlets as a few of the many stressors that may contribute to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. candidates, especially those who are nearing the completion of their degree requirements (Wong, 2018). Clearly, mental health impacts students’ experiences in higher education, yet sacrificing mental health is often a normalized side effect of pursuing a degree. We believe that needs to change. As two students who are pursuing master’s degrees in Communication Studies, we intimately understand how stress, anxiety, and depression can be debilitating to being successful. Although college is meant to be challenging, it is not meant to be traumatic and give long-lasting mental health issues that continue to persist long after the degree has been completed.
Many educational institutions offer resources for mental health, mainly counselors and therapists to help students, but many times it takes weeks to get appointments, and if free services are not offered, financial constraints may not allow for medical treatment. The problem of students’ mental health in colleges and universities persists, so as HASTAC scholars, we began to think of ways we can help curb these mental health issues in our immediate community, the Communication Studies program at Texas State University. A few weeks ago, in our Qualitative methods course, our professor Dr. Elizabeth K. Eger had a week dedicated to “arts-based inquiry” wherein qualitative researchers use forms such as drawing, poetry, painting, photography, and more as a form of data collection to get a different perspective on understanding the participants. When doing an arts-based activity in class to demonstrate the concept, we both realized how valuable this tool could be for understanding our own mental health and wanted to share it with the program.
Arts-based therapy is something that has been used for a multitude of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and stress. A pilot study in 2016 proposed that after a 45-minute art session, adults can have a significant reduction in cortisol, which is recognized as a stress hormone that is associated with the fight or flight response and stress in the body (Kaimal, Ray & Muniz, 2016; Malchidodi, 2016). Their study found that 75% of the participants had a significant reduction of cortisol in the body, highlighting that art has the potential to reduce a main component of stress, anxiety, and depression (Kaimal et al. 2016). Recent popular press publications suggest that Canadian doctors will soon prescribe museum visits as a means of increasing a patient’s serotonin levels or as a distraction from the experience of chronic pain (Solly, 2018a). Similarly, as soon as the year 2023, British doctors plan to prescribe art, music, dance, and singing lessons to help improve their patients’ physical and mental health (Solly, 2018b).
Along with art, and with the university holiday season close, we also found that practicing gratitude has benefits for mental health, relationships, and overall satisfaction (Scott, 2018). So, we decided to combine arts-based stress relief and practicing gratitude and teamed up with the Communication Studies Graduate Association for the program and put on a “Stress Relief Through Gratitude” workshop.
During the event, we had paint canvases, acrylic paint, paint brushes, scratch off art projects, felt markers, pens, paper, and thank you cards to offer the students who participated. We also had an array of snacks and had relaxing music in the background to intentionally set the space for the time we were there. We prompted everyone to think about their stressors, and paint/draw/write/create something that shows a relief to that stress. The room at the beginning of the workshop was full of laughter, sounds, and side conversations, but as the workshop continued, it fell more and more silent. At one point, everyone was so involved in their own unique projects that all we could hear was the music playing in the background. We had planned the event for an hour and ended up using the space for almost two and a half hours.
Through this project, we both realized that there are not enough consistent, institutional resources for stress-relief that take different methods outside of counseling. When talking with the students who came to the to the event, there was a consensus that focusing on something other than school and life for an hour made a big impact on the way we felt. So why are we not doing this more? We think that programs, departments, and student organizations should take on consistent smaller events to give students more opportunities for stress relief, however that may look. Some universities have done things such as stress relief tables with puzzles and activities around campus, people handing out donuts in the nude, puppies on campus, and events with food and music for finals stress relief, but finals week is too late (Goodstein, 2015). Although this is easier said than done, educational institutions and student organizations should take a deeper look at the issue of student’s mental health and take initiatives to aid in the never-ending, ever-evolving upkeep of mental health.
APA. (2013, June). College students’ mental health is a growing concern, survey finds. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/06/college-students.aspx
Brown, J. (2016, October 2). Anxiety: The Most Common Mental Health Diagnosis in College Students | BU Today | Boston University. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/today/2016/college-students-anxiety-and-depression/
Goodstein, E. (2015, May 07). How 6 colleges help students cope with finals stress. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2015/05/07/how-6-colleges-help-students-cope-with-finals-stress/37402519/
Kaimal, G., Ray, K. & Muniz, J (2016) Reduction of cortisol levels and participants' responses following art making. Art Therapy, 33, 2, 74-80, DOI:10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832.
Malchidodi, C. (2016, January 28). Art Making and Stress Reduction. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/arts-and-health/201606/art-making-and-stress-reduction
NAMI. (n.d.). Mental Health Facts in America. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf
Scott, E. (2018, October 4). 3 simple ways to cultivate gratitude and banish stress. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-benefits-of-gratitude-for-stress-relief-3144867
Solly, M. (2018a, October 22). Canadian doctors will soon be able to prescribe museum visits as treatment. The Smithsonian. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/canadian-doctors-will-soon-be-able-prescribe-museum-visits-180970599/
Solly, M. (2018b, November 8). British doctors may soon prescribe art, music, dance, singing lessons. The Smithsonian. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/british-doctors-may-soon-presc...
Wong, A. (2018, November 27). Graduate school can have terrible effects on people's mental health. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/11/anxiety-depression-mental-health-graduate-school/576769/