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The Second Semester: Stress and Mental Health

he start of spring semester has a very different feel from the “clean-slate excitement” of the fall, says psychologist Dennis Christoffersen of University Health Services’ Counseling and Consultation Services.

“It’s more like passing the halfway point in a marathon,” he says. “You’re much closer to the finish line, but you’re also much more tired than you were 13 miles ago, and you’ve got to draw on a different type of energy to keep going.”

For upperclass students, this semester can feel especially stressful. Whether feeling burdened by undertaking a job search or difficult academic issues, it can be an emotional four months.

And then there are the students who may want very much to graduate but are finding themselves a few credits short, or missing a requirement, and realizing it may not be mathematically possible.

“They may be terrified to admit it to anyone,” says Christoffersen. “They’re white-knuckling it through the semester, afraid of what will happen when someone finds out. And the tension can build and build, until it feels like a full-blown crisis around spring break, and they break down and ask for help.”

How Parents Can Help
If your son or daughter seems uncharacteristically irritable, defensive, or negative, particularly around topics such as spring break or graduation, express your concern that he or she may be feeling extra stressed, and ask permission to engage in an open discussion about what’s bothering him or her.

“Deal with your own anxiety first, before you write or talk to your student to open a dialogue,” Christoffersen says. “Parents need to be calm if they are going to be able to help.

Reach out sooner rather than later. “If there are academic issues,” he says, “there may be options available earlier in the semester, such as independent study or summer school enrollment or dropping a class, that can’t be arranged after certain deadlines have passed.”

Express a willingness to brainstorm together, but don’t take over the agenda and make decisions for your student, as that will only heighten feelings that life is out of control. Instead, encourage help-seeking behaviors, such as talking to his or her advisor or professor, or making a counseling appointment at UHS.

“They may want to hide away and not communicate with anyone, because they don’t think of themselves as someone who could need help with an academic problem,” says Christoffersen. “But people at the university help great students deal with situations like these every day. And finding the strength to have those conversations is the best thing they can do to start making things better for themselves.”

Be aware that your student may be especially worried about disappointing you, and about possibly needing more financial support to complete another class or semester.

“If you can be reassuring about those issues right up front, that may help them shift into more of a problem-solving mode,” says Christoffersen. “Even if money is tight, it’s easier for them to start thinking about other ways to pay for those remaining credits if they hear that you don’t regard their education as a bad investment.”

Students may make an appointment to see a UHS counselor by calling 608-265-5600 Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mental health crisis services are available 24 hours a day at the same number.