- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - At first glance, you wouldn’t think Tyler Cohen had a care in the world.

The Franklin & Marshall College senior and Chi Phi fraternity brother has a relaxed demeanor and a cheerful smile.

But appearances can be deceiving, he earnestly told students and campus officials at a recent F&M; forum on mental health.

“I am extremely stressed. … Everyone at this school is going through stress,” Cohen said.

Other students echoed Cohen’s comments, disclosing struggles with anxiety, depression and more.

College can be “a really challenging time for students,” said Jillian Niesley, program director at The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to promote collegiate mental health and prevent suicides.

The classes are harder. You have to make new friends. You’re away from home. There’s a lot at stake.

Often, students can take up to a year to find their footing, said Margaret Hazlett, dean of the students at F&M.;

The good news is they generally do. Hazlett described students blossoming in their sophomore years, gaining confidence in their academics, finding fun things to do and building a network of friends.

Still, educators remain concerned about the pressures on students - and some worry that young people today are entering college with poorer coping skills than their predecessors.

U.S. college freshmen reported record low emotional wellbeing in a fall 2014 survey conducted through UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

In the most recent National College Health Assessment, more than a quarter of college students said stress affected their academic performance in the past year, and nearly 20 percent said anxiety did.

The numbers trend higher at more selective and competitive schools.

At F&M;, the comparable numbers are 38 percent and 26 percent, according to figures presented at the forum.

At Elizabethtown College, about 16 percent of students make use of its counseling services in a given year, said Bruce Lynch, director of student wellness.

Nationally, large numbers of students report feeling, at least occasionally, exhausted and overwhelmed. Nearly 60 percent report having felt “very lonely.”

Students report feeling more pressure to do well academically and less time to socialize and unwind.

Again, the numbers are higher at selective schools.

“You have very high expectations of yourselves,” Sean Flaherty, an economics professor and “don” (head) of Weis College House told the audience at the forum, which was organized by student government.

“That generates stress. … There’s no way around it,” he said.

Hazlett said students sometimes come to college with a limited ability to deal with frustrations and setbacks. In some cases, she suspects, overprotective parents have done too good a job shielding them from hard knocks.

Moreover, all young people today must contend with the ordinary struggles of growing up in a social environment distorted by Facebook, Twitter and so on.

“It’s hard to be imperfect today” when “any flaw is immediately sent out on social media,” Hazlett said.

At the F&M; forum, students said their work load is heavy and that professors don’t always factor students’ other classes into their expectations.

They also said F&M;’s campus culture is one in which overwork can be a badge of status.

The atmosphere during exam season is one of “tremendous isolation,” senior Emily Meneghin said: “I see people not eating, not sleeping.”

Things can be especially hard for international students, said Priyankana Bastola, who is from Nepal.

They’re often under tremendous pressure to succeed academically, and suffer anxiety as a result, she said. But chances are it’s not acceptable in their culture to seek counseling, so they won’t.

Colleges have put a lot of resources into their counseling and support programs, and they want students to take full advantage of them when they’re needed.

At F&M;, students are encouraged to reach out to anyone, Hazlett said: a roommate, a professor or coach, a resident assistant or house don.

Sometimes, a talk or a stress break is all that’s needed. For students with more serious problems, F&M; has a counseling center staffed by four full-time psychologists and several part-time counselors.

E-town has three full-time counselors and “we see a whole variety of concerns,” Lynch said.

At Millersville University, the counseling center faced an unprecedented situation in February when a freshman, Karlie Hall, was killed in her dorm room. Her boyfriend, Gregorio Orrostieta, has been charged in her death.

Millersville encouraged students to seek whatever help they needed from the counseling center and Campus Ministry, spokeswoman Janet Kacskos said.

At least 30 students met with counselors in the first days after the tragedy, processing feelings of shock, grief and anger, Dr. Kelsey Backels, chair of the department of Counseling and Human Development, told LNP.

The campus held a vigil for Hall and officials have taken steps to raise awareness of dating violence.

Millersville hosted a counselor from the YWCA and even brought in therapy dogs.

Millersville’s crisis was exceptional. For the more normal, mundane challenges of college life, it can help to focus on the basics, Niesley said.

Make sure you’re getting enough food, sleep and exercise. Students often underestimate how important those are, she said.

If you need to, work on your time management or interpersonal skills.

Above all, be connected to people - in person, not online.

If you need counseling, seek it. When students speak up, they’re often pleasantly surprised to find that support is there, and that many of their peers are dealing with similar feelings and issues, Niesley said.

As schools focus more resources on mental health, and the stigma associated with seeking help lessens, she thinks those national trend lines on student stress will start heading downward.

“There’s every reason to be hopeful,” she said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1zvn7Rn

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Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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