Breaking through burnout

International students sitting together on green campus lawn – Group of high school teens studying outside college – Multiethnic millenial friends doing homework in university park – Academic concept

The semester is winding down here at Sheridan and students are feeling the pressure as final exams and projects begin to pile up. Stress is a semester-long challenge for college students. Learning to manage that stress is a tough skill to master and many will hit the point of burnout on their way to graduation.

The 2019 National College Health Assessment found 19 per cent of surveyed college students had been formally diagnosed with depression. The same survey found that 63 percent of students had experienced feelings of hopelessness within the last 12 months.

“A big breaking point for students is when they find out they’re going to fail,” says Senior Manager of Student Healthcare Services at Sheridan College, Tammy Datars.

As a result, burnout tends to peak in students before and after midterms and exams.

Datars stresses the importance of self-care, and social connections to help stave off burnout.

“You can’t expect to be able to do your best if you’re not meeting your own basic needs,” she says. “If a student when they come to a post-secondary environment hasn’t made a friend in the first three weeks of school, there’s a higher percentage of them dropping out by Thanksgiving.”

Students face many unique challenges that make them vulnerable to burnout. The most obvious factors are course load, but many students also have to balance academic priorities with part-time jobs, social commitments, and dependent family members. For most students, college represents a major period of transition in life, and they have to develop a whole set of non-academic skills in order to get through that transition.

The need for student support in mental health is not unknown though. College faculty across Ontario narrowly avoided a strike a couple of weeks ago. Additional counselors and support for student mental health were one of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union’s (OPSEU) principle demands in their negotiations with the College Employer Council (CEC).

Datars says the college would ideally be able to provide program-specific counselors that worked directly with students in their programs.

“That would be amazing,” she says. “That being said, are we providing adequate services for the volume of students that we have with the current resources we have? Yes, we are.”

In addition to student counseling within the college, Sheridan offers students access to counseling through EmpowerMe and KeepMeSafe. Students have access to EmpowerMe through the SSU. It acts as a hotline that can connect students to a wider network of professionally trained counselors and consultants. KeepMeSafe is a similar service that Sheridan offers to international students.

Students can get less formal support through the student advisement services and the Library and Learning Services department. Students who find themselves overwhelmed by a high course load, or disappointed with their program of choice, can turn to these services to help get themselves back on track.

Sheridan also employs what Datars refers to as a care team to help support students that are particularly high risk. This team focuses on identifying students in need of support before they need to ask for help.

When managing student burnout though, the most important strategy is prevention.

“We will give prescriptions for exercise ­– to the gym that students can go to and have personal fitness sessions with people,” says Datars.

The effects of physical activity on mental health are well established. Daily exercise has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety as much as therapy and medication do.

One program offered at Sheridan was specifically developed to encourage students to get up and move. The program is called Sheridan Moves.

“Moving outdoors really can improve your mood. And even more so when you’re able to connect with community members,” says Sheridan Health Promotion Specialist, Erin de Jong.

Sheridan Moves is a weekly event held at the college for students who want to get up, get out, pick up some tips on self-care. Each week, the college holds a “move,” where students meet in a virtual space to chat for 15 minutes about mental health before getting 30 minutes of outdoor exercise. They meet every Friday and discuss a different strategy to reduce stress in each meeting. In the past, they have covered such topics as self-love, gratitude, and cold-weather exercise. This week they’ll be covering the benefits of Vitamin D.

For some students, counseling is an essential part of stress management, but probably not the only part.

“You probably are going to have to work in other areas of your life to kind of start understanding healthy coping mechanisms,” says De Jong. “That’s a process that takes a really long time.” As the semester comes to an end, either with a glide or a grind, students in need have access to meaningful support across all three Sheridan campuses. In the spirit of mental health, here are six quick tips on how to stay well.