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CAPS director, current students discuss mental health challenges, strategies for incoming frosh

HOLDEN FOREMAN/The Stanford Daily

For many, college is hailed as a fresh start — a chance for students to explore subjects they didn’t in high school, to pursue passions they didn’t have time for before, or simply to embrace a new sense of independence. But college can also leave students feeling out of place, both academically and socially. This is especially true for first-year students at Stanford, according to Bina Patel, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Vaden Health Center.

Mental health on college campuses has been a growing nationwide concern, and first-year students are at particularly high risk of struggling with their own mental health. A 2018 survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that, across the United States and 7 other countries, over a third of first-year college students experience symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder. 

The weight of a new environment, pressure to forge new friendships and start of a stressful academic journey can all contribute to mental health challenges faced by first-year students. At a high-profile, rigorous university like Stanford, these issues are amplified further, Patel wrote in an email to The Daily. Not to mention, incoming Stanford students are often coming off an extraordinarily intense high school career. 

‘‘Students may be carrying higher levels of stress from high school, and the burden of this, in addition to finding their way in a new setting, can lead to increasing levels of distress,” Patel wrote.

Stanford’s culture of hyper-productivity is another obstacle for students, according to psychology major Forrest Dollins ’22, a research assistant at the Stanford Social Concepts Lab. 

Dollins said the largest mental threat Stanford students face is “the feeling that if you are not doing the absolute most that you can, and if you’re not filling every second of your day with something productive, then you’re doing something wrong.” 

Happiness Collective President Aiyanna Herrera ’21 said she suffered from imposter syndrome, the feeling that she “didn’t belong, that [her] admittance was a fluke, that [she] was not equipped to handle everything this school was about to throw at [her].”

But there are steps that can be taken to mitigate at least some of the stress students face. One of the most important steps to safeguarding mental health is to know one’s limits, Patel wrote — biting off more than you can chew and not leaving time to simply enjoy college life is one of the biggest mistakes students make in their first years. Patel advocates “for protecting time for social connection, for adequate sleep, and for seeking out supports and resources.”

Dollins agreed on the importance of setting aside free time, saying that he would advise students to “try to find a way to be okay with having some downtime in your schedule so that you can actually enjoy the wonderful life that you’ve been given.” 

Discussing feelings with others is incredibly important, Herrera said, but just as pivotal is who one chooses to speak with.

“Get in touch with another incoming freshman of a similar background,” Herrera said. “Listen to their story, share your own, find peace in the similarities and differences.” 

Incoming students don’t have to rely on just each other for support. Resources such as CAPS, the students’ Newcomer Guide, academic advising directors (AADs), residence deans and the Bridge Peer Counseling Center are also available.

Though students have expressed concerns with Stanford’s mental health resources, such as its leave of absence policies and limitations on CAPS visits, the University has been working to expand its support systems.

“There is so much stigma around mental health and seeking help,” Dollins said. “[Don’t] be afraid to talk about how you are actually doing [and] find the help you need.”

Contact Shray Vaidya at vaidyashrayy ‘at’ gmail.com.

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