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February 04, 2013

Student Stress Focus of Town Hall Meeting

By Bruce Gerson

The rigorous academic culture at Carnegie Mellon and how students cope with the stress it can cause was the focus of a late January town hall meeting.

The meeting was hosted by Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno, Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert and Student Body Vice President Meela Dudley.

Although the meeting came in the wake of a student death this past December and an editorial in the Tartan urging the university to do more to address student stress, Casalegno and Burkert said the well-being of the campus community has been and always will be a university priority.

"We are all in this together, and we have a responsibility to each other," Burkert said.

About 250 students, faculty and staff attended the meeting, which Casalegno directed to focus on the problems students face.

About 20 students discussed their experiences, how they felt success was defined at CMU and what one student called a "4.0 mentality." Some offered remedies to alleviate some of the pressure and noted how fellow students have provided a much-needed support network in times of stress.

Students described heavy workloads that drove them to forgo eating and sleeping for extended periods, bouts of depression, frustration with not getting into desired courses, perceived stigma associated with seeking counseling, fears of failure and being "addicted to success."

One student called for the need to re-evaluate extracurricular activities, implying they add time commitments, while another spoke about not having enough distractions from studies.

Additional recommendations included creating a required "Caring at CMU" course for freshmen, in which students would be taught time management skills and be encouraged to form healthy habits such as eating right, sleeping right and exercising.

Other suggestions covered re-evaluating courses so that the amount of weekly hours needed to complete the work matches with course credits and granting students access to seek more than the 12 allowable sessions at
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) during the academic year.

Kurt Kumler, CAPS director, said after the meeting that when a student reaches his or her maximum number of sessions and more therapy is indicated, the therapist will help facilitate a referral for long-term therapy or other treatment options in the community.

"Some students feel satisfied with 12 sessions and plan to resume their work in the following academic year. We make all of our treatment determinations on a case-by-case basis, so it always depends," he said.

For some students, he said, it makes more sense to help them find treatment in the community at the start. For any student who needs a referral for community resources, CAPS works to assist them throughout the referral process.

At the town hall meeting students advised their peers to put their own well-being before work and allow themselves to lower their expectations.

Casalegno said the meeting was a first step, and more community discussions will be scheduled.

"We close with a commitment to figure out a way to move the needle. We're going to find a way," she said.