The Student Stress Crisis: What is Portland State Doing to Make a Difference?

The first weeks of each term at Portland State University (PSU) pass by languidly as students and professors review syllabi and initiate coursework. As midterms approach, however, schedules fill with studying and exams and stress levels pick up. Pressure may temporarily ebb after midterms, but rises again in anticipation of finals. Meanwhile, students are also registering for the next term, and since many classes have limited enrollment, even a perfectly-planned schedule may go awry.  After registering many students worry about paying tuition and fees, and the $100 late fee and a registration hold. The financial onus hits hard, especially for students who struggle to make ends meet. 72% of PSU students receive some form of financial aid, and 42% take on loans.


In the last decade, mental health among college students has steadily declined. In 2018, only 39% of college students in the United States met the criteria for ‘flourishing.’ According to the Healthy Minds Study, this is down 16% percentage points since it was first measured in 2013.This means that 61% of students experience one of more negative outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, self-injury, suicide ideation, eating disorders, or substance abuse. 


Students who have more resources, such as financial support from their families, have advantages over those with less. Some students need to work while going to school in order to afford tuition, rent, and daily expenses, which can distract from school--potentially affecting academic performance, or even require dropping out to attend to work and family commitments. Students who drop out are less likely to return and finish their education, an important determinant of health and wealth throughout the lifecourse. Keeping students in school is a priority, therefore addressing student stress early should be, too.


Stress can be triggered by things like financial difficulties, family expectations, relationship issues and trouble in one’s home or work life. Stress on students can manifest as physical symptoms, such as headaches, trouble sleeping, restlessness, and irritability. Without an outlet, or a way to positively cope with stress,  it can lead to lowered academic performance, poor health, substance use, low self-esteem, and/or even suicide ideation. The impact on students can be detrimental, as it is often their education that takes the hardest hit. Many students begin to live out a continuous cycle of stress. 


In 2016, two in three students at PSU experienced above-average levels of stress, according to the National College Health Assessment, compared to about 58% nationally. While 32% of students around the U.S. said that stress has negatively affected their academics, the proportion  is double (64%) at PSU. Two-thirds of PSU students report having received stress reduction information; but information dissemination is an inadequate solution. Addressing student stress requires an upstream approach.

Student Health and Counseling Center Services


In support of student mental well-being, PSU offers a spectrum of services, ranging from clinical therapy to group counseling, and also employs high-impact/low-cost health promotion strategies. The university seeks to provide resources that meet the diverse needs of students in a variety of settings.


PSU offers mental health counseling through the student health center (SHAC), including individual counselinggroup counseling, a variety of mindfulness and health management workshops, outreachassessments, and self-help resources. Counseling services are provided by  a team of licensed psychologists, clinical social workers, and psychiatrists. Students can schedule initial consultations to discuss their needs and counseling service options. 


Individual services range from a single discussion with a counselor to a planned program of counseling or therapy; psychiatric consultation and medication may also be introduced in treatment plans if necessary. Group counseling is a useful and preferred treatment choice for many issues commonly experienced by college students. Special topic groups at SHAC include Students of Color Support Group, ADHD Therapy Group, Overcoming Social Anxiety Support group and more. 


SHAC counseling services also hosts outreach events throughout the school year, including the biennial “Test Your Mood Event”. During the event, students complete a confidential, 10 minute questionnaire about common symptoms of depression and anxiety, and identify difficulties with interpersonal relationships, social anxiety, stress, and low self esteem. Participants receive feedback from a counselor, who explains their results, and if needed, refers them to individual counseling, group counseling, resources for emergency and crisis services, or medication evaluation and management. The event is intended to reduced anxiety about talking about mental health and is an effective way to broach the subject and introduce resources to those who may need them.


Besides clinical services, SHAC also provides the “Mind Spa,” a room in the Center with light therapy, meditation, yoga, biofeedback games, and a massage therapy chair that students can book for forty-five minute sessions, up to three times a term. 

Other Campus Efforts to Address Student Stress


One of the more visible efforts at PSU is the “WHAT Hut,” which stands for Wellness and Health Action Team. The rainbow WHAT Hut tent pops up in high-traffic areas around campus regularly. It is hosted by PSU students to support peers with self-care, stress management, and other resources for those who might be struggling and need peer support. The WHAT Hut is a friendly, approachable way to positively engage peers. 


Another fun event is the Midterm Stress Relief, which is hosted by the Portland State Programming Board each term and is open to all PSU students. At the Midterm Stress Relief event, students are offered massages, dog therapy (with corgis!), coloring, music, origami, and refreshments--all free of charge. Besides these supports, the event promotes social support by bringing the campus together to connect and develop a sense of community. The Midterm Stress Relief helps students take a break from the pressures that midterms may cause. 


PSU is conducting a pilot program with professors to address anxiety in the classroom by engaging students in a brief mindfulness meditation activity at the beginning of class. The activity aims to help students relax and shift awareness from their internal emotions toward their surroundings and the classroom. 

College can be overwhelming, largely self-driven, and isolating. To attend college, many students have already overcome difficult barriers, such as being a first generation student. Preventable stress and mental health issues should not be another obstacle. By implementing strategies that address student stress and promote mental well-being, higher education can enable all students to have the opportunity to thrive.