Preventing Student Depression & Anxiety
College students are at high risk for mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. For freshmen, in particular, the transition to college life marks a significant developmental milestone that is fraught with stressors. Incoming students often feel overwhelmed and alone with strong feelings that they may not have the skills to manage.
Preventing such stress from developing into mental health problems is a priority for Boston University. Emotions 101, a short online course on emotion management, was developed and tested in 2017-2018 as a possible tool in an expanding set of resources designed to help students improve quality of life, develop resilience, and actively learn how to recognize and cope with strong emotions, such as loneliness, fear, and anxiety.
“Adjusting to college life can be challenging, said Christine McGuire, Vice President and Associate Provost for Enrollment & Student Administration. “Resources like Emotions 101 have the potential to create a positive impact on student wellness through the development of healthy emotional coping strategies.”
Positive Initial Response
The Emotions 101 program was developed and administered by Dr. Shannon Sauer-Zavala, research assistant professor at Boston University, master clinician at BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD), and director of the Unified Protocol Institute. The Unified Protocol is a cognitive-behavioral intervention developed at BU to directly address core vulnerabilities in individuals already diagnosed with anxiety, depressive, and related disorders, and has demonstrated efficacy in treating anxiety across a number of trials to date.
The purpose of the first Emotions 101 program is to determine the efficacy of this protocol as a preventive tool for BU students.
“A brief prevention program like this could potentially help students manage emotional distress before their symptoms reach clinical levels,” said Dr. Zavala. “This in turn may avoid costs to both students and the university, such as increased Student Health Services visits, missed classes, costly prescription medications, medical/mental health leave, and reductions in academic retention.”
Initial Responses Positive
With the assistance of Christine McGuire’s office, Dr. Zavala sent an email to all incoming freshmen students at the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester encouraging them to participate in an Emotions 101 study.
“We first invited freshmen to participate in the study by taking a survey,” explained Dr. Zavala. “Eligible participants were offered $10 in Convenience Points for their participation. About 300 students completed the survey. We then assigned half of those to take the one-hour online course and the other half to do nothing further. We did a follow-up survey with both groups just before the Thanksgiving break, and will administer another survey later in the school year.”
Of the 150 assigned to take the course, over 120 incoming freshmen completed it. The program uses a combination of short animations, pithy written materials, and brief assessments to cover four skills:
- Understanding Emotions
- Being Present
- Flexible Thinking
- Emotional Behaviors
All participants will complete another survey six months after taking the course. The form measures depressive and anxiety symptoms, the tendency to experience negative and positive emotions, quality of life, avoidance of emotions, and cognitive flexibility.
According to Dr. Zavala, the results of the first survey were encouraging. Over 87% ranked the course as highly acceptable, and over half found it helpful or very helpful. The graphic and video content was by far the most popular, along with meditations and other aids to promote present-focused thinking. Among the most important thing they learned from the course, respondents said, was learning to look at emotions not as burdens, but as vital sources of well-being. Students also enjoyed gaining mindfulness and grounding techniques, and new skills for coping with stress. Some also noted that they took reassurance from learning that the emotions they experienced during the first week of class were normal and they were not alone.
Students also offered numerous suggestions for improving the formatting and content of the course. Some felt it was too simplistic, while others focused on the physical presentation of the material.
According to Dr. Zavala, the full study will not be complete until summer 2018. But she is already looking forward to making improvements and rolling out a more robust version of the program. “It’s been great to work with undergraduates to develop a product that addresses their needs,” she said. “I think this program also addresses student perceptions of how much BU cares about their mental health experience.”