This past week I moved to BITS Pilani-Hyderabad Campus to lead discussions about student mental health, particularly stress and anxiety among university students. Before requesting that students participate in our study, we felt it important to first understand how students perceive anxiety and stress and the existing ways in which students can get support.
We began with an interactive discussion on what is stress / anxiety, how can you recognize it, and how can you distinguish between stress that is motivating (eustress = ‘good stress’) and stress that causes your mind and body to respond negatively to stressors in life (distress = ‘too much stress’). Most students seemed to focus on school and career-related stressors; however, with some prodding, students began speaking up about social pressures in life: first dates, liking a girl who doesn’t like you back, and meeting the expectations of my family.
Then, we introduced the purpose of this research collaboration between Stanford and their school: To create a partnership between Stanford and BITS that will help shape the future of student mental health in India. Specifically, we aim to: (1) better understand the prevalence of anxiety among Indian university students, and (2) evaluate if these online programs actually help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
We then discussed some of the potential benefits to what we were proposing: using online programs designed to reduce anxiety / stress. In addition to being completely private and more accessible, the online programs we’ve proposed are evidence-based, meaning the content in the programs has been evaluated and refined and validated through many previous research trials.
We explained how some of our online programs are supported by what we call “e-coaches.” These are counselors who have trained to provide coaching online, via a messaging platform built into the program. They help guide students in their use of the program, help them work through any challenging material or activities in the program, and generally provide support and feedback.
We continued hosting discussions across the campus for a week (competing with Sankranti, a harvest festival celebrated in this region of India, for student’s attention), in lecture halls, in the mess hall, in classroom pop-ins, and in all the hostels on campus. With the help of pizza to lure students and stress balls and chocolate to motivate participation, we got in front of nearly half of BITS’ 2500 students.
The feedback from students was diverse and confirming of our goals for pursuing this work in the first place. Many students expressed curiosity about what we were proposing – How do you contact your coach? is the coach a real person? Can I really message them whenever I want? Many also expressed healthy skepticism about what we’re doing – Has this been done before with Indian students? Stress only reduces once I finish my work; so, how can a program reduce my stress? How accurate are your questionnaires that categorize students into Low Stress, Some Stress, and A Lot of Stress groups? (If you’re also now curious, to answer those questions: (1) This is the first time these programs are being evaluated among students in Indian universities. (2) The program helps users better understand the triggers that cue their anxiety/stress and enable users to better prepare for and manage typically anxiety-provoking situations. So, the goal would be to reduce the stress caused by having pending work, hopefully enabling a student to complete the work more efficiently. (3) The questionnaires that comprise the survey are all validated measures, meaning they have been researched and refined to ensure they can accurately assess a student’s anxiety and place them into the appropriate category.) We also received individual outreach from students sharing their own experiences with anxiety/stress and requesting additional support. These students were referred to the on-campus counselor for more immediate support. Overall, the discussion is spreading, and BITSians are beginning to self-reflect more about their mental health and if/how they would like to get support should they need it.
A most sincere thank you to all the students – those in the student union (Vishnu Saran, Nikhil Potluri, Kartheek Manavarthi), those in charge of audio/video (Sreekar Chigurupati), poster designers (Vivek Yadav) – and staff – Director V. S. Rao, Dr. Archana Srivastava (an economics professor lending her expertise to our research), Chief Warden Dr. Pranav, the hostel superintendents, professors who donated class time – who helped make this a truly campus-wide initiative. Thanks for your support!