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Colleges address depression, stress with curriculum aimed at emotional health

Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review - Elizabeth Matisko,18, a freshman at Robert Morris University, studies in her dorm room on the Moon campus. Majoring in nuclear medicine, she was studying for an anatomy final exam.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Elizabeth Matisko,18, a freshman at Robert Morris University, studies in her dorm room on the Moon campus. Majoring in nuclear medicine, she was studying for an anatomy final exam.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review - Elizabeth Matisko,18, a freshman at Robert Morris University, studies in her dorm room on the Moon campus for an anatomy final exam.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Elizabeth Matisko,18, a freshman at Robert Morris University, studies in her dorm room on the Moon campus for an anatomy final exam.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Chatham freshman Melissa Garrett, 19, studies at the university's library.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Chatham freshman Melissa Garrett, 19, studies at the university's library.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Melissa Garrett, 19, a freshman at Chatham University, studies in the library.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Melissa Garrett, 19, a freshman at Chatham University, studies in the library.

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Toni Macpherson believes the stress of cramming for tests and final exams does not have to leave college students bleary-eyed and caffeine-addled.

Macpherson, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Leading Education and Awareness for Depression, or LEAD, acknowledges that college is “ a time of significant transition and enormous challenge, both positive and exciting and also scary.”

“Our goal is to help young people on the cusp of adulthood to have better emotional health,” she said.

For the past two years, LEAD has offered SCoRE, the Student Curriculum on Resilience Education, to 1,300 students, most of them freshmen. It teaches students to interrupt studying with “purposeful breaks,” such as taking a half-hour walk or playing a video game, and keeping in touch with family and friends.

The course recommends eating well, getting plenty of rest, and knowing what works best for someone — there's no point in trying to cram all night if you are a morning person.

Chatham, Carlow, Robert Morris, George Mason, Cornell and Georgia Southwestern State universities began offering the curriculum in fall 2011, and it's online — www.scoreforcollege.org — enabling students to utilize a digital version at their pace for $39.95.

Sheila Fine, board chair of LEAD, founded the group 10 years ago when she read about Heinz Prechter, a successful entrepreneur in Michigan who battled bipolar disorder for most of his adult life before committing suicide in 2001 at 59.

Fine realized she wanted to teach students how to manage the immense pressure of preparing for end-of-semester tests and help them avoid lapsing into depression about grades and the pressure to succeed.

“I don't know many kids who can't use this, and the ones who say they can't are kidding themselves,” she said.

Of 20 million college students, an estimated 15 percent, or 3 million, are diagnosed with depression, said Dr. Victor Schwartz, psychiatrist and medical director of The Jed Foundation, a New York City-based group that works to prevent suicide among college students.

He said about 1,500 students a year commit suicide.

“It has real possibilities of helping students work on some skills that will put them on more solid footing for dealing with school and with life,” Schwartz said of SCoRE.

Randon Willard, academic and crisis counselor at Robert Morris University, and Sean McGreevey, assistant dean of students at Chatham University, teach SCoRE. Willard said students arrive at school recharged and ready for success. By the sixth or seventh week, their energy lags, and some may feel overwhelmed by schoolwork and relationships.

“This time of semester, it's high-stress, and in my job, I hope for good weather. It gets people outside,” he said.

McGreevey said many students are relieved to learn that they don't have to be born with resilience; they can learn it.

Melissa Garrett moved from Dallas and enrolled as a freshman at Chatham last fall — leaving the Texas sun and the cocoon of home for Pittsburgh winters, new faces and the rigors of college classes.

“I had to get used to a different location and a lot more work to do,” said Garrett, 19, a creative writing major.

After taking the SCoRE class, Garrett said, she tries to think positively, schedules her study time and takes breaks with friends.

Elizabeth Matisko, 18, a freshman from Hadley in Mercer County, took SCoRE in her first semester at Robert Morris. Then she joined the Nuclear Medicine Club and a Christian group and takes study breaks by running on a treadmill, calling her mother or boyfriend, or logging onto Facebook.

“I would have thought I was a resilient person before the class, but my opinion changed because I realized that resiliency was more than I thought it was,” she said. “It was managing stress, making friends and having goals. That's one of the key things that really helped me.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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