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Less Childhood Play May Lead To More Anxiety In College

Photo by Anh Gray

KUNR is exploring mental health issues among young people in our community. Yesterday, we reported there’s been more demand for counseling at college campuses nationwide due to increased anxiety. At the University of Nevada, Reno, that’s also the case. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray explores why.

"Happy Halloween!  Happy Halloween!"

Just last week, a couple of UNR students handed out candies and goodies like colorful, de-stressing squeeze balls on campus. The goal was to get students to stop by for a breather from mid-semester stress.

“So what we do is we hang out with people that come by. They usually talk to us about whatever their stressors are while they color pages or play with Legos,” Reymon Ulan, a neuroscience major, donning a bright, green T-Rex costume says. “We usually have a bunch of other games like Connect Four, checkers, chess, just the whole nine yards.”  

He’s a member of Take 5, an outreach program run by UNR’s Counseling Services. He worked alongside Alexa Alessi, who’s majoring in criminal justice. She says many students she knows have a lot on their plates.

“A lot of students are working as well as doing school full-time, Alessi says, “and we’re really heavily pushed at this school to take 15 credits a semester which is a full-time student and that comes out to about 40 hours a week.”

That large workload isn’t the only trigger for stress; Alessi says her peers are also afraid to fail.

“So I feel like it’s a lot of outside stress maybe put on by parents or just society as a whole that they internalize and put on themselves,” Alessi says.

Licensed clinical social worker Marcia Cooper oversees Take 5, which provides students with various ways to de-stress including pet therapy, yoga or even playing games.

“They’re very mindful activities, they focus the concentration on something that you’re doing in the immediate present time,” Cooper says.

Even though UNR’s counseling center supports students with a myriad of issues like eating disorders, substance abuse and various mental disorders, Cooper says anxiety is the number one reason students come by to see her.

“Anxiety is very often related to future thinking,” Cooper says, “and so if we can get the students to just be mindful, and sit and concentrate on something that they have to do in detail, then it reduces their stress.”

That ability to cope with anxiety—or what’s called “resiliency”—is critical.

“I think one of the biggest things that help students have resiliency is the protective factors that they bring with them: a good relationship with their family, a good home life growing up, maybe they have friends here,” Cooper says.

In a recent blog post for Psychology Today, Developmental Psychologist Peter Gray from Boston College wrote that college counselors across the country are reporting a decline in resiliency. Based on his own research, Gray has found that inability to cope with everyday life correlates with the modern-day demands made on children to over-achieve.

“Even when they’re not in school, they’re often in “school-like activities,” Gray says, “so sports directed by adults, volunteer projects where they are once again directed by adults, or karate classes, various other things like this, all kind of in the interest of preparing a resume ultimately for acceptance into college.”

Those structured activities give children fewer opportunities to learn on their own.

“Over the last several decades, there has been a dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play,” Gray says, “to explore and to experience life away from adults that increasingly children and even teenagers are under the constant guidance and direction of adults.”

Historically, free play has been the primary way children develop problem-solving and social skills—Gray says taking that away robs them.

“So what they’re not experiencing is how to solve day-to-day life problems because there’s always an adult around to solve this for them,” Gray says.

“Resiliency” has become a hot topic for college counselors nationwide, including Dr. Cynthia Marczynski the director of UNR’s Counseling Services.

“I think early on, especially for freshmen or for new students, who haven’t experienced this type of academic setting,” Marczynski says, “what we see is a lot of students coming in felling overwhelmed, feeling like, ‘I can’t prioritize my activities; there’s too much going and I can’t figure out how to study; I can’t figure out how to work my time out.’”

For the first two months of this semester, UNR’s counseling center saw more than 600 students compared to the roughly 500 students during the same time frame last year. Marczynski says the student population is higher now so that could be a contributing factor. 

Aside from seeing more students with anxiety, Marczynski says the demand in services could also be due to other issues.

“Are we just seeing more students with severe mental health problems who are on medication and have had treatment earlier in their lives,” Marczynski asks, “and are we just dealing with the population with more mental health problems?”

But with anxiety being the most reported, Marczynski says having students develop coping mechanisms before they even leave the nest helps them to better adapt once they’re on their own. And if they can’t, the counseling center tries to fill that gap.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.