Stress and Coping at Denison Across 2021

By Gus Hoffmann

The pandemic pushed everyone out of their rhythm, kept us apart from our friends and loved ones, and disrupted many of the ways we take the stress out of our lives. It was no surprise that everyone was talking about mental health last year. But there are lots of reasons to think that the return to “normal” might be even more stressful, not just in the flex, but in the sheer number of life’s facets we are expected to engage in. Could 2021 be even more stressful than the pandemic year? 

Prioritizing mental health can be easily sidelined by academics, extracurriculars, and maintaining a social life. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the enforced isolation from the outside world led individuals to reflect on their mental health. It’s no surprise that the 127 blog ran several articles pertaining to mental health. Jacob Dennen aimed to answer the question “How stressed are students about academics and how does that compare to other things?” He found that mental health was ranked the second highest in factors contributing to students’ stress (after academics). Siobhán Mitchell and Jacob Dennen found students extremely stressed, fueled by a variety of campus factors (including mental health) and unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as binge drinking, to handle stress. There were so many experiences and activities last year to keep mental health in the conversation, including “mental health days”, goody bags provided by CA’s with destressor items, and multiple events in the library aimed to improve mental health (therapy dogs, stress balls, and meditation seminars). What about this year? Are students feeling overwhelmed with stress? 

This may be surprising, but I found that there has been a 5 point increase in stress levels from students from March to October (see the graph below). While not huge, it is a statistically significant increase. We decided to investigate this phenomenon by comparing factors related to stress from these two different surveys, focusing on three factors to try and uncover the reasons for this increase in stress at Denison: survey respondents’ views on their own mental health, time to participate in healthy activities, and present social support systems on campus that might reduce stress.

It’s no surprise to those who have been there, and a lot of us have been there, that Denison students who have struggled with mental health are feeling more stress. Sometimes that may be a vortex of cause and effect as stress feeds mental health and mental health struggles put increased pressure on things, like academics, that feed stress. We don’t have data about struggling with mental health from March, but it seems that the increase in stress could be accompanied by increases in mental health struggles.

This graph shows the answers to the question of the survey: “ How many people at Denison could you rely on for the following kinds of support?” Each ridgeline plot represents different questions about what a friend would do for you. From top to bottom, the questions asked: “bum a ride to the grocery store”, “borrow 20$”, “get a set of notes from a missed class”, “Talk about a breakup or unhappiness”. All the questions had a similar spread of how many friends would do each favor, however, interestingly, all the questions had this consistent hump of survey respondents who had 10 people they could rely on. We concluded at 127 that these respondents are most likely involved in the greek system or sports teams, which constitute sizable support systems allowing you to meet a lot of people, make friends, and then ask them stuff, because what are friends for anyway? 

It’s notable that social support is lower in October compared to March, which may be one reason why stress is higher now. But it is possible that social support is always lower in the fall. Some people might not have enough time to meet extensive numbers of people, so these findings are not necessarily pandemic related. It could be a structural feature of college that the Fall semester is more stressful than the Spring semester.

Last, we wanted to compare some data regarding activities associated with a healthy lifestyle from March to October, 2021. Obviously the pandemic placed severe limits on our social freedom, but perhaps it opened up more opportunities for self-care. The evidence does not support that notion. Generally, it seems students have been able to find more time to do these activities this fall compared to last semester. The only activity that decreased was “read the news,” which might not be an activity that students associate with alleviating stress. Originally, when writing this article we thought that stress might have increased because the return to normalcy crowded out the healthy lifestyle activities. However, as this graphic shows, students are still more stressed than last semester, even with more time to participate in these healthy activities. It may signal that pressure to be healthy is actually linked to stress or that those who are feeling stress seek out more self-care opportunities (there’s modest evidence for the latter). 

With high levels of stress and mental health struggles, it is fortuitous that The Hoaglin Wellness Center is planned to be completed in the fall of 2022. Built in between Huffman and the Mitchell Center, the new wellness center will offer new gathering spaces, mental health resources, and “movement practices” (activities like yoga or spinning). The construction of the Wellness Center is Denison’s response to rising concerns over mental health for college students nationwide, not to mention the need for more gathering space and university-sponsored workout classes. This new building will also reduce the burden on Whistler Hall and its staff by providing a building and specialists whose sole focus is assisting students with the full spectrum of their mental health needs. Additionally, the new wellness center will reduce traffic and congestion in the Mitchell Center which has limited space and is often crowded. Hang in there as we head into finals week. 

Gus Hoffmann is a senior at Denison University, where he majors in global commerce. After graduation, he plans to do something significant and have a bench named after him placed on Denison’s academic quad. 

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