Stuart Slavin, associate dean for curriculum and professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine, addressed a common myth among colleges students during his Jan. 26 address at Franklin & Marshall College – “increase the pressure, and you will increase academic success. “
As part of F&M’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Slavin spoke at Common Hour, a community discussion open to the public and held every Thursday classes are in session during the semester. On college campuses across the country, levels of depression and anxiety are unsettlingly high, in part because of cultures that encourage students to sacrifice well-being for success, he said.
“This creates a false dichotomy,” Slavin said. Students often assume that to achieve their best work they must commit as much time and effort as possible to their studies, which causes them to forgo self-care and suffer declines in mental health. While studies show peak performance is realized at healthy levels of stress, do not push students to the point of burnout, he warned.
Slavin became interested in mental-health issues at St. Louis in 2008, when he discovered through surveys that among first- and second-year medical students, 27 to 35 percent reported serious depression while 54 to 61 percent reported serious anxiety. The statistics reflect mental health conditions at colleges nationwide, Slavin said.
Like many institutions, Slavin said, St. Louis University’s mission statement provides for “an education of the whole person: mind, body, spirit, and heart.” So, he said he felt called to make changes.
Slavin designed a student health initiative with three goals—at the curricular level, reduce unnecessary stressors for students; at the mentoring level, help students to find meaning in their work and a sense of purpose in their medical studies; and at the individual care level, increase students’ abilities to cope with stress productively.
After instituting these goals, the university has implemented changes to the curriculum by decreasing workload, transitioning early courses to pass/fail, and identifying “toxic courses” that adversely affect the academic culture. They also instituted a mindfulness and resilience curriculum for first-year students, which provides them with knowledge and tools to manage personal stress and setbacks.
Slavin and his colleagues have since tracked depression and anxiety among all medical students. The results confirmed that mental health should be a priority in education. In 2016, the rate of depression among first- and second-year medical students dropped to 6 percent. The rate of anxiety dropped to 14 to 20 percent.
While the campus culture has shifted, academic success remains the same. Students reported an improved emotional climate, more positive student-faculty interactions, and better overall quality of life – lower levels of stress, disengagement and exhaustion.
Slavin encourages institutions like F&M to incorporate stress-management models that combine mindfulness, metacognition, and resilience. Given the tools, students can cope with daily stresses by understanding how the mind works and learning to practice “cognitive restructuring.” Slavin said humans can negatively distort the reality of their circumstances, creating unnecessary stress. Cognitive restructuring helps to recognize these distortions and address them.