For many of the 40,000+ first-time college students entering third level this September, first year will be a time of great fun and frivolity; for new experiences and pushing boundaries. For others, it will be a time of great upheaval marked by uncertainty, nervous anticipation and enumerable stressors. Students will have to contend with a sea of unfamiliar faces and environments, and timetables and academic jargon to which they are unaccustomed. This seismic shift in circumstance is a challenge that students should face head-on, says Treasa Fox, Head of Student Counselling at Athlone Institute of Technology.
“The first seven weeks are among the most crucial for helping a student connect socially and emotionally at college. We have a special programme, called AIT Connect, that helps students integrate into life at third level and find their bearings. Forging friendships and making connections early on can have a positive, insulating effect that makes the transition to college easier. Some students are so overwhelmed by the prospect of starting college, moving house and making new friends that they forget basic skills like how to communicate!
“They are so busy looking inwards at their perceived problems, concerns and limitations that they can’t see that many of their peers are in the same boat and are just as nervous and unsure of themselves. For this reason, we always advise students to attend their new student induction day and to get involved in college life from the get-go. There are a wide variety of activities planned with first years in mind which will help them make friends and ease the turbulent transition from second level to college. If students need additional supports, they should come and talk to us in the counselling service,” she said.
There has been a considerable increase in the numbers of students accessing counselling and student support services in recent years. A report published by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education (PCHEI), an organisation for whom Treasa is a spokesperson, reveals a 40% increase in demand for counselling on campus over the last decade. This is, in large part, thanks to shifting social attitudes towards mental health and increased third level access and participation.
More than 14,000 students accessed counselling services nationally last year. Of that number, 40% did so for problems relating to anxiety and depression. While there are myriad contributing factors and triggers, according to Treasa, the after-effects of being bullied in secondary school is one of the most pervasive. “Bullying has a long legacy and as much as school policies have improved in addressing it, it still continues and is extremely prevalent. Bullying is often a precursor for a lot of social anxieties which can lead to maladaptive behaviours that make integrating into college life difficult,” she said.
Social media is another major cause of anxiety and depression among college students in that it influences how students perceive themselves and relate to the world around them. “As wonderful as social media is in helping us stay and feel connected to one another, it also increases the pressure students feel to look and act a certain way. When we view someone’s life through a series of tiles or snaps, it’s easy to forget that what we’re seeing is a carefully curated vista, not an accurate representation of someone’s life and the challenges or struggles they might face. As the old adage goes, comparison is the thief of joy. Students who internalise this unrealistic view of the world may start to feel dissatisfied with their own social life or appearance. This can be hugely problematic,” she said.
While it’s not unusual for students to feel anxious during this transitionary period, if their quality of life is being affected, students should seek help. Attending counselling can help students develop coping mechanisms that will be of benefit to them throughout their
professional and personal lives. In Treasa’s experience, most students will see significant results in as little as four sessions.
“If students are having a problem, we’re here to help. Our service is completely confidential, and we have a wealth of experience in dealing with emotional and psychological difficulties. We encourage students to use to the drop-in sessions that we provide over the first seven weeks. Early intervention is key and will save you a significant amount of unnecessary suffering. The right services delivered at the right time can make a world of difference,” she finished.
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