'Surviving and thriving': Universities turn to peer groups, parties to help students handle exam season stress

As exam time approaches, students are feeling the pressure — and peer-led groups are leading the way to help support each other, with a reminder that everyone needs to care for their mental health.

As finals approach, Manitoba student groups, administrators say everyone should be mindful of mental health

Student stress levels mount as exams loom, says the dean of students at Brandon University. Universities are increasingly looking for creative approaches to help students manage that stress and stay healthy. (froampsbeg/Shutterstock)

As exam time approaches, many students are feeling the pressure — and universities are turning to everything from peer-led groups to pop-up parties to therapy dog visits to lend support, with a reminder that everyone needs to care for their mental health.

Schools are getting more creative about addressing mental health on campus, say students, administrators and counsellors — something that's essential for often stressed-out students.

"I'm juggling a million things at once," said Maree Rodriguez, a conflict resolution studies student at the University of Winnipeg.

"And that sounds cliché, but I think there's truth to it — where for myself, I juggle school, I juggle work and I juggle volunteering."

High expectations also contribute to her stress.

"[There are] academic pressures of being able to not just pass your class, but be the best at your class. Not just volunteer, but be an amazing volunteer."

University of Winnipeg student Maree Rodriguez says part of the key to beating stress is avoiding the habit of comparing herself to others. (Submitted by Maree Rodriguez)

Rodriguez isn't alone in feeling that pressure. More than 88 per cent of Canadian students surveyed by the American College Health Association this year reported that at some point in the past year, they'd felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do.

In the same survey, which polled more than 55,000 students at 58 Canadian schools, more than 63 per cent of students reported they'd felt things were hopeless at some point in the past year.

Katie Gross, dean of students at Brandon University, said she sees patterns in student stress.

"I think it rears its ugly head in the middle of the semester and final exams," she said.

"It's not just exams, it's also the other assignments that are due, and so finally it's the 'Oh my goodness' moment for students."

Beyond traditional supports

David Ness, director of the student counselling centre at the University of Manitoba, said within the school and society in general, conversations around mental health have changed "in very good and positive ways."

"Within the last 10 years, students and staff at the University of Manitoba have become more comfortable discussing stress and mental health," he said.

However, Ness cautions it's important that increased awareness and high levels of self-reported stress don't lead students to feel like emotions that are a normal part of everyday life necessarily need to be treated.

David Ness is the head of counselling services at the University of Manitoba. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

He said it's not surprising to hear students are overwhelmed, based on the number of challenges and stressors they face in school, but adds that "part of life is being realistic."

"If your career aspiration is to get into a highly competitive program, that's gonna be really stressful," he said.

"That's realistic and I don't want students to feel like if they're feeling a lot of stress, that there's something wrong with them."

While many students are stressed, Brandon University's Gross said counselling and traditional forms of therapy aren't the answer for everyone.

"Not every student wants to go see a counsellor. Not every student wants to go to a workshop," she said.

Brandon University recently developed a peer-wellness educator program, which lets students teach each other about mental health and wellness.

Educators host events ranging from discussions about emotional wellness to social activities like pizza parties and "supplies parties" — pop-up events where students hand out pencils and other essentials for studying.

Gross said the program lets students have fun experiences they may not otherwise get — like going into bouncy castles — and those relaxed environments often make students more comfortable discussing mental health.

Focus on health

Sarah Bonner-Proulx, a fifth-year psychology student at the University of Manitoba and an executive member of the school's student union, said heavy course loads and life changes have contributed to her stress level.

"The transition of going from high school to university is quite a large one, in managing new responsibilities and navigating the university life, especially [for] myself coming from quite a small town in northern Manitoba," she said.

"[Students are] balancing extracurriculars, academics, new responsibilities and a lot of change."

Inga Johnson Mychasiw, director of student support services at the University of Winnipeg, says most professors support accommodating students with disabilities. ( Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Bonner-Proulx said the U of M student union hosted its first "Wellness Week" this year, organized around the promotion of all aspects of health, unlike some other events focused strictly on mental health.

Activities included visits with therapy with dogs from St. John Ambulance, informal discussions about mental health, and delivering healthy snacks and mental health resource information to students. Similar events will take place during exam week as well, she added.

Similarly, the University of Winnipeg hosts an event called "Thrive Week," says director of student support services Inga Johnson Mychasiw. It's part of an annual initiative held in 11 schools across the country to promote student wellness and increase awareness about mental health.

Students can go to fitness classes, mindfulness meditation workshops, and cultural and art activities like keychain making hosted by an Indigenous student group. The goal is to keep the mental health conversation going all semester long.

"Some of it is information, and some of it is just fun," said Johnson Mychasiw.

'Multi-pronged approach'

UMSU's Bonner-Proulx said hosting less traditional types of wellness activities — and taking mental health discussions outside the realm of therapy — is necessary for reducing the stigma around mental health.

"When we look at overall mental health and wellness, we really need to look at it from a holistic lens and take a multi-pronged approach to addressing this topic," she said.

It's a topic, she says, where "frankly, there is stigma around that — there's still hesitation to talk about [it], there's still some taboo."

University of Manitoba Students’ Union vice-president advocacy Sarah Bonner-Proulx. (John Einarson/CBC)

Events that draw people in and engage students are vital, she says.

"That's the biggest thing, is that normalizing."

Avoiding the 'comparison trap'

After having benefited from wellness programs herself, Rodriguez said she's happy to have a chance to give back, as long as she's able to protect her own mental health along the way.

"I believe you have to help yourself first before helping others," she said.

For Rodriguez, part of the key to beating stress is beating the habit of comparing herself to others.

It helps, she says, "if we at least are aware of that comparison trap, and just go and take the time to know that we have done enough, and know that we have done our best."

"Sometimes, that's all we can do at the end of the day."

Bonner-Proulx says "both the [student] union and the university have come a long way, at least in the last five years that I've been here," in addressing mental health.

But she argues there needs to be more proactive work to reduce the incidence of serious mental health conditions, including boosting funding to universities for support efforts, and leadership from different corners of the school to champion mental health.

"We need to be addressing early on … educating folks and focusing on those proactive measures, as well as not pathologizing stress and anxiety when they do arise."

Both she and Rodriguez emphasized the importance of teamwork to promote wellness and reduce the stigma around mental health.

"We need to be working collaboratively to get this message across and to really let students know that mental health is so, so important," said Bonner-Proulx.

"Taking care of it really can be the difference between surviving and thriving in this university environment "


Erika Rodeck


Erika Rodeck is a researcher with CBC Manitoba. She is part of the 2019 CBC Abilicrew Placements for Excellence (CAPE) cohort — a group of Canadians with disabilities who have been hired for three-month internships. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg this spring with a bachelor's degree in Conflict Resolution Studies.


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