With the pandemic boosting college stress, the UC system is boosting the course “Life 101”

With the pandemic boosting college stress, the UC system is boosting the course “Life 101”

Life would be easier if it came with instructions. For students throughout the University of California system, it soon will.

Starting next month, “Life 101,” a two-unit course taught at UC Irvine since 2013, will be expanded and made available for students at any UC campus.

In addition to helping students in everything from nutrition to health management, the course teaches students how to recognize and manage stress.

With the pandemic in full swing, stress is ratcheting up.

“My goal is for students to really pay attention to their mental and physical health,” said Mahtab Jafari, a UCI professor of pharmaceutical sciences who created the course seven years ago.

Stress isn’t a new issue on college campuses. Recent research and data show college students are far more likely to seek assistance for mental health, and are more likely to experience severe depression, than older adults. In 2013, when she created the course, Jafari said in a UCI video lecture: “We have an epidemic of stress.”

But this year – with the pandemic preventing students from meeting face-to-face with friends and family, and forcing them to take classes online – many battle stress without much outside help.

“Offering the course now, to all students, is very timely,” Jafari said.

Specifically, students in Life 101 learn about self-awareness and emotional intelligence. They also learn about the health benefits of getting proper sleep, diet and exercise.  They’re even reminded to do something as basic as stop and breathe – deeply– and to go out into nature to ease their worries and feel refreshed.

“Even 10 minutes in nature improves our emotional health,” Jafari said.

The course also reviews the effects of drugs some college students take to stay awake for test cramming, and other drugs they take to fall asleep.

Many students arrive at college prepared for high level academics, but not to take care of themselves.

“Some say they should have learned these skills at home,” Jafari said. “They should, but they didn’t.”

And that, she added, opens a door for schools to teach the much-needed lessons.

The pandemic has added to that need by forcing many students into abrupt changes, including where they live and how they socialize. That’s on top of non-pandemic issues such as internships, jobs, money, food – and of course, their classes.

To learn more about the mental health of students at UCI, Jafari surveyed undergraduates in April and May. Of the 360 who responded, 87% reported that their health “has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.”

In a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which broke down groups by age but did not specify college students, about one-quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed said they had “seriously considered suicide” in the previous month.

A survey earlier this year by UC Berkeley’s Students Experience in the Research University Consortium reached out to 30,725 undergraduate students and 15,346 professional or graduate students. That survey found 35 % of the undergraduates and 32 % of the grad students “screened positive for major depressive disorder, while 39% of undergraduate and graduate and professional students screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder.”

Ellen Osmundson, program director for the UC-wide Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, said the Life 101 class will help students cope.

“Self-care is a critical element of academic success, and this course presents strategies for mindfulness and emotional intelligence that will support students during the pandemic.”

Jafari, who still teaches the course she created, is continuously tweaking it. This summer, during the height of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, she added information about anti-racism and racial tensions. During the pandemic, she’s adding more about emotional health.

But the goal is to ease stress, not add to it. To that end, students who sign up don’t have to log on at any particular time to the online lectures and materials. They can log on at their convenience. No stress.

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