Students Go on Break, but Their Mental Health Challenges Don’t

Students Go on Break, but Their Mental Health Challenges Don’t

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

It’s a double-edged sword, the holiday season. From the same feasts, reunions and gift-giving that can inspire so much joy comes the stress to boot. One survey from the American Psychological Association found that 38% of respondents experienced heightened stress amid the holidays. And the problem with stress, other than how uncomfortable it can feel, is that it magnifies the impact of a range of other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, up to 64% of those with pre-existing mental illnesses may suffer worse symptoms during the so-called happiest time of year. 

For some, the onset of winter alone is enough to trigger low mood. Americans across the country, and especially in the north where days become shortest and coldest, confront seasonal affective disorder from lack of sunlight. Others who associate the holidays with unhappy memories or loved ones who are no longer around may find this time to be tainted by the fallout of trauma and grief. The financial burden of exchanging of gifts and the pressure to find the “perfect” ones can also turn this practice from merry to miserable. Those lacking the spirit to celebrate for any reason can end up feeling isolated when their holiday reality does not live up to expectations or everyone else around them seems to be enjoying themselves.

Certainly, college students are not exempt from any of these trials of the holiday season. They even encounter their own unique set of stressors. While time off from school ideally provides an academic and emotional “break,” returning home after an extended period away can be jarring. The newfound independence young adults enjoyed on campus is often out of reach, as they find themselves back under the watchful eye of parents and families and revert to old patterns and rules. Students with strained family relationships confront these uncomfortable dynamics at a point when tensions are already running high. Those who hold identities their families don’t affirm, like LGBTQ+ students, may be forced to suppress who they are while torn away from the support systems and friends they formed in college. Other students feel the pressure to complete schoolwork during their vacation and don’t end up benefitting from a rest period. 

For college students without families, another set of mental health barriers crops up. In a Q&A for its quarterly magazine, our non-profit affiliate, the Mary Christie Institute, spoke with Judi Alperin King, PhD, the executive director of the Wily Network. The Wily Network offers a safety net to support the basic needs of college students who may have been in foster care or otherwise lack parental assistance. According to Dr. King, students without a home to visit are saddled with the stress of having to find alternative housing during the break. Even if their school allows them to stay on campus, living in a dorm by themselves throughout the holidays can be lonely and demoralizing. In general, the widespread assumption that everyone should have a family and home to return to amidst the holidays weighs on those without. This weight often grows heavier when students who do have families to see openly complain about having to do so. The way forward, Dr. King said, is to meet students where they’re at during this tumultuous time. Rather than presuming what the students need or what is best for them, those interested in offering support should ask the young people themselves how to help make them feel safe and secure. 

As for colleges striving to improve the wellbeing of their student body and bolster their counseling center services, they can turn to Christie Campus Health (CCH). CCH offers a high touch, customized solution for colleges and universities that complements existing mental health and wellness efforts. Whether that is instant support from a licensed clinician available 24/7 or access to no-cost counseling and teletherapy sessions through their vast provider network, CCH is exclusively focused on the unique needs of college students, wherever they are. The CCH full continuum of care also includes services such as Student Navigators to assist with referrals and specialty care; psychiatric prescribing; evidence-based tools like Headspace, the leading meditation and mindfulness app; SilverCloud, a self-directed and clinically validated ICBT program; and a curated Wellness & Navigation Hub with over 1,000 articles and videos to support student mental health and wellness. Contact Christie Campus Health to learn more.

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