Student Resilience – The New Epidemic?
Starting university can present challenges for even the most organised and healthy individual. Personally, I wouldn’t describe myself as either. A mixture of internal and external influences has affected my tenure in higher education. Finances, friends, family, relationships, and health have all impacted my personal student journey. As a post-graduate studying journalism, I feel I’m well-placed to investigate these factors across the wider student cohort.
As a mature student and father to three children holding down two jobs, I’m no stranger to stressful periods. However, I was staggered to hear how many students felt similar. Recently, I participated in a resilience session with a mixed group of around 35 students. It was facilitated by 2engage C.I.C, an arts company that uses arts-based approaches to investigate and reflect upon difficult issues. There were several barriers cited by students in the session:
- Social media
- Meeting new people
- Disability or Mental Health issues
- Balancing work, life and study
- Decision making
- Fear of failure
The list above comprises social, cultural, personal, and motivational barriers, most of which are universal to us all. Take finance, for example, recent research published by UniHomes found that some 56% of students surveyed said their loans did not provide them with enough money to live comfortably, while a further 30% stated they could just about get by.” A grim outlook, but what is living comfortably?
This was just one stressor students listed in the session, therefore, raising awareness about the realities of student life in this way is essential. It helps solidify our understanding of resilience and why we should expect student life to be challenging. The 2engage facilitator provided the opportunity to share experiences and find commonalities within the group.
Using case studies, we were able to grasp how something as benign as an assessment deadline can exacerbate stressful situations leading to anxiety and even depression. A Uni Health study found that 80 percent of those studying in higher education reported symptoms of stress or anxiety, while one NUS survey found that 9 in 10 students experienced stress (The Guardian, 2021). These figures might suggest a stress epidemic across UK universities, however, perhaps it’s our attitudes, expectations and perceptions that need to be re-wired. Evidence proves that stress can be a good thing, and that feeling stressed is natural. It felt like the collective student body had been avoiding any form of stress like the plague, rather than embracing it.
The facilitator of the workshop elaborately and unapologetically affirmed “if you stay in your comfort zone and avoid difficult situations, you are missing out on personal growth”. This relates to the Yerkes Dodson Curve (figure 1), which proposes that you reach your peak level of performance with some level of stress.
Figure 1. The Yerkes-Dodson Law Bell Curve
2engage called the session ‘Back to Our future’, a telling nod to the pandemic, a time to refocus, reassess stress, and move forward. Laced with life-affirming and inspirational stories promoting resilience to students at different stages of their journey, this session certainly got me thinking outside the box about stress.
I could see students begin to smile when they were told they would experience setbacks, failure and adversity. The atmosphere was changing. I could sense some relief and the beginnings of students attitudes start to change. I realise times are tough, but if we change our perspectives on stress and our expectations of student life, surely this is the start of being more resilient?
… Comfort is subjective, like stress. Comfort to one person can be a discomfort to another. What is comfortable living for you?
Written by: Scott Aston Jenkinson (MA Journalism student)