When I was a college student back in the early 1980's we had a rather unflattering pre-exam period tradition. We all gathered on the front lawn of the school just as night fell and engaged in what is best described as a group-wail. Something like a cross between a primal scream and what I imagine the sound of sick cows might be. It wasn't a glorious sound. Not at all. But sounding glorious wasn't the point. It was about two things: relieving stress by admitting you had it, and creating solidarity by doing it together.
I was very heartened to learn that many decades later, mental health organizations are taking up the charge of addressing the very serious mental health challenges of college students today put at higher risk by the additional pressure of exams, by making the act of lowering stress a national event. So this week, as students' stress levels are rising in anticipation of exams, the 7th Annual National Stress Øut Day will take place April 15-21st, 2012 at hundreds of schools across the country. The collaboration of a student run organization, Active Minds, and the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, with support from OCD Chicago and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline thousands of students will participate in such activities as: water balloon fights, pie-ing professors (with their blessing), free-form painting, do it yourself ice-cream sundaes, movie screenings aimed at a lighter look at mental health such as What About Bob, and, As Good As It Gets and yes, a scream-fest.
This initiative could not come a moment too soon.
Not only are anxiety disorders among the most common mental health problem on college campuses, and the most common disorder among adults (40 million adults suffer), a recent national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that freshman self-ratings of their emotional health were at record low levels in 2010. The need is urgent.
Lowering stress levels is one goal of the National Stress Øut event, another is to dispel the stigma about seeking mental health services when help is needed. By making an event out of lowering stress, a clear message is sent to students that stress is real, that they don't need to be ashamed of it, or feel that they have to hide it and appear "perfect," and importantly that stress and anxiety are things that can be helped, as a community, together.
So, if you happen to live near a college campus and hear a strange sound of students wailing together this week, know that they are getting smart about one more thing by going to college: taking seriously the need to care for their mental health. It could be one of the most valuable lessons they learn.