Coping Skills 101: For College Students in Crisis

When college students have serious difficulty coping with school and social stress, or other mental health challenges, they may find themselves backed into a corner without a lot of good options.

Often, the school counseling center isn't equipped to provide support beyond once-weekly appointments. 

What other options are there?

Find a therapist in the local community and begin weekly 50-minute meetings. Good, but that can take months or longer to have much impact.

This may leave only the draconian option: Withdraw from classes and take the semester off. But that comes with its own challenges. It can leave the student adrift, cut off from school and their social world, which may contribute to the student becoming more isolated and depressed. 

If the student's stress manifests in more severe depression, thoughts of self-harm or not wanting to live, they may seek hospitalization. While a hospital stay is sometimes necessary and can potentially be helpful, just as often the opposite is the case. Most inpatient programs aren't staffed well enough to offer much individualized treatment; getting the new patient started on medication is often the default intervention. Unfortunately, little actual therapy occurs in such hospital stays.

Another perspective is coping skills. When the student's academic and social pressures have overwhelmed their available toolkit of coping skills, they often don't need medication or a hospital stay, but a significant upgrade to their coping toolkit.

Many times, the struggling student needs robust, focused coaching on how to better manage their stresses in an efficient, impactful time frame, as well as the option to continue the semester. And this is exactly what the mainstream mental health system isn't designed to provide.

A personal, intensive counseling retreat can fill this gap in services. It focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on skills-based treatments, proven to reduce unhelpful nervous system reactivity, increase emotional resilience, and build self-compassion and self-regulation. The counseling is geared toward the all-important application of the coping skills in real-life stressful situations that would be anticipated post-retreat.

Therapeutic methodologies typically include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based CBT, therapeutic yoga, and others. The common thread is empowering the client to better understand, accept and manage the challenges they face, and respond with more skill and resilience.

Consider this recent retreat participant, identifying details adjusted to preserve her anonymity. Ashley was almost 20, starting her sophomore year at an arts-oriented university. She had a history of mood challenges, and had been hospitalized as a teen for suicidal thoughts. As the school year started, conflict with a romantic partner and other peers overwhelmed her with anger and hopelessness. She appropriately got in touch with the campus security, reporting she felt unsafe, and felt she needed intensive counseling. She was quickly triaged to the local ER, who saw no better option than to admit her.

In the psych unit, she was monitored and kept safe, but felt her real needs (counseling) weren't addressed. The sterile, impersonal mood of the hospital made her feel worse. She felt more desperate, and understandably, bitter. She and a parent contacted me, and over the course of several phone calls, we agreed to start a counseling retreat as soon as she was discharged.

Over four and a half days, working at a rural New England organic farm/retreat center, we focused on skills to better manage her feelings, thoughts and social stresses. The process focused on learning new coping skills, and practicing them in real time, as the difficult moods came and went. Her innate intelligence helped her quickly adopt the new skills. Along with long walks, yoga and meditation sessions to calm her mind and balance her energies, and a swim or two in the pond, Ashley worked through what had derailed her and practiced the skills she'd need to go back to school. The calm, slow, rural atmosphere was part of the medicine. Between counseling sessions, she played with the chickens and studied the beehive activity. “This is what I needed!”, she said multiple times. 

Toward the end of the week, we agreed she'd turn her phone back on and try out being back in touch with friends at school. By the end of our fourth day, she reported feeling ready to go back to school.

Importantly, she had one other small but crucial insight about her feelings of not wanting to live. As we explored her relationship with her father, we both came to understand that it was he, in the end, who expressed a hopelessness about living, not her. But she had inadvertently taken it on. In a powerful statement of her new insight about the hopeless feelings, she said: “I'm done with that! That was his sh*t!”

She returned to school, and finished the semester. No doubt more ups and downs were experienced, and will be in future. But the retreat focused her on skills of coping, and so can her self-care work that lies ahead.