Stressing in the Fall: What are the Implications of a Reading Week for Student Mental Health Learning

April 19, 2019

Dr. Ayesha Khan and Dr. Heather Poole
School of Interdisciplinary Studies McMaster University and Faculty of Social Sciences University of Ottawa

Post-secondary students have long reported higher psychological distress than the general population1, and their levels of stress and anxiety have risen in recent years2,3. With an increasing awareness of mental health, many colleges and universities have recognized the need to direct greater focus toward the well-being of their students by implementing a variety of stress reduction strategies and policies. One of the most consistent approaches to support undergraduate student mental health is the introduction of a fall break that provides students with a reprieve from their classes. Accordingly, many post-secondary institutions across Canada now hold some form of a multi-day break in the fall term. It is therefore critical to investigate how the implementation of a fall break impacts stress among post-secondary students.

Our presentation will describe the work of a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary team that has combined qualitative and quantitative approaches to provide the first comprehensive assessment of the impacts of a fall break on student stress. We have surveyed undergraduate students at three Canadian universities about their experience of the fall break using measures of perceived stress before and after the break, and hosted several focus groups to develop a narrative of students’ experience. Through a pilot study, we have also assessed hormonal markers of stress such as salivary cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone around the fall break. Our findings show that the effects of a fall break on student stress are varied, with surveys revealing no substantial decrease in stress levels but focus groups indicating some positive perceptions of the break. Furthermore, survey data identified several subgroups which are experiencing particular high levels of stress. Although our data indicate that a fall break seems to be a generally positive experience for some students, they do not provide clear evidence that it is an effective way to decrease student stress. Given the wide-scale adoption of fall breaks, we hope that our investigation can initiate dialogue
about the importance of evidence-based decisions in the development of stress-reduction interventions for Canadian university students.

1. Adlaf, E. M., Gliksman, L., Demers, A., & Newton-Taylor, B. (2001). The prevalence of
elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: Findings from the 1998 Canadian Campus Survey. Journal of American College Health, 50, 67-72.

2. American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2018. Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association; 2018.

3. Booth, R. W. Sharma, D., & Leader, T. I. (2015). The age of anxiety? It depends where
you look: Changes in STAI trait anxiety. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 51(2), 193-202. doi: 10.1007/s00127=015=1096=0


Ayesha: I have a Ph.D. in behavioural neuroendocrinology during which I investigated the influence of in utero, dietary, and social factors on time to sexual maturity in developing females. This work is published in journals such as Reproduction, Physiology & Behavior, Reproduction, Fertility and Development, Hormones and Behavior, and Hormone and Metabolic Research.

Heather: I do research on pedagogy in university settings. This includes investigating the effects of various teaching and evaluation approaches on student learning and experience. I also lead a multi-institutional project measuring the effects of semester scheduling policies on student stress and academic performance. My work comprises quantitative and qualitative approaches.

photo of Dr. Ayesha Khan and Dr. Heather Poole