September 23, 2021


The College Wellness Guide: A Student’s Guide to Managing Mental, Physical and Social Health on Campus.  By Casey Rowley Barneson and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $15.99.

     Accentuated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental-health challenges inherent in college have become both more extreme and more worrisome than they were in the past. But they have always been present. College is stressful. In addition to academic requirements beyond what students have previously encountered, college is for many their first time living on their own, their first time being away from familiar places for an extended time, their first time making their own significant decisions and facing the consequences of those decisions without parental shields, their first time managing their own schedules and deciding how and when and how much to study, their first time balancing work and play – the list goes on and on. It would be surprising if college did not put a significant strain on students’ mental and physical health.

     There are plenty of books that acknowledge these issues and try to guide students through them. The College Wellness Guide is basically a good one, although scarcely the last word: it is more of a once-over-lightly from which students can get ideas that they can then apply to their specific concerns to the extent possible. Casey Rowley Barneson is a high-school-based college counselor, not an active on-college-campus professional, but she certainly has good ideas about self-evaluation for stress, anxiety and other issues and sensible concepts for what students can do when college life simply becomes overwhelming.

     The usefulness of Barneson’s book depends, however, on how comfortable students are with the multiple quizzes, questions, lists, fill-ins, and self-assessment exercises around which Barneson builds the book. These “you do it” portions of the book, if a student has patience and inclination to deal seriously with them, will be significantly more useful than much of the narration, which tends to be simplistic: “Counseling sessions come in many forms for many needs. Don’t be afraid to try different forms to find your best fit.”

     It is best to view The College Wellness Guide as a workbook, and perhaps even think of it as a guided class in self-help – that may be easier now, since so many students had to adjust to remote learning because of pandemic lockdowns. The book starts with 11 separate self-assessment quizzes, each 15 questions long and each requiring an answer ranging from 4 (strongly agree) to 1 (disagree). The willingness to take all 165 questions seriously and answer them honestly is absolutely crucial in order to find the four “units” that follow helpful. Those sections deal with mental, physical, social, and future health (the last referring to career and post-college financial matters). However, the questions are sometimes confusingly written. For example, under “self-care,” one says “I don’t usually take time for myself” (requiring agreeing or disagreeing with a negative), while another says “sleep is rarely consistent” (how about consistent poor sleep, or sound sleep for a few hours follows by consistent wakefulness?). And some questions try to pack too much into a single sentence, as under “study support,” where one reads, “I struggle with research papers, my grammar, or properly citing sources” (three separate topics, and that “or” does not help).

     Within the “units” that explore the issues brought up in the initial self-assessment, Barneson expects students to continue providing answers in all sorts of formats. Under “Mental Health,” for example, there is a “mark your calendar” box in which a student is supposed to check the school’s calendar for relevant events, choose one to attend, then write down what he/she hopes to get  out of going and why this particular event feels important. Then there is a calendar called “My Month of Mental Health Awareness,” with Barneson saying to pick a theme for the month and then providing a blank calendar with spaces to check off each day and write down goals and actions. In the same chapter is a Venn diagram to be used to compare and contrast “two mental health organizations you want to try out.” And there is an “Evaluate Your Choices” section that includes both a place to write down comments and one to rate various aspects of a group on a scale of 1 to 5.

     Multiply this single chapter within a single section by all the other chapters and the other sections and The College Wellness Guide, even though it is only 272 pages long, can quickly come to seem overwhelming. That is certainly not Barneson’s intention, but it is the result of her book’s structure and her overall approach to the topic in general and the subtopics of which wellness consists. Furthermore, although there are numerous “How to Cope” paragraphs within chapters, much of what Barneson says in them will be difficult for struggling students to do. If, for example, a student has significant trouble “presenting in front of people,” causing “crippling anxiety,” Barneson suggests asking for an accommodation: “Asking for accommodations, no matter what you’re dealing with, is something that can be very stressful, but is essential to making the learning process less taxing. It’s important to let the necessary people – like counselors, advisors, and professors – know what’s going on so they can help you.” So a student with a serious fear of presenting material needs to present material to potentially judgmental people in power in order to get them to make some sort of accommodation. It is easy to see how this sort of advice, while well-meaning, can come across as too simplistic to be useful in a student’s real college world.

     The usefulness of The College Wellness Guide will ultimately depend on each student’s comfort level with the depth (or lack thereof) of Barneson’s suggestions and urgings, and her methods of getting readers to contribute to their own self-evaluation. In the section on sleep, for example, she offers a “Sleep Tracker” with six categories (“I slept 8-10 hours,” “I woke up feeling energized,” and so on) – and asks readers to “shade in the portions of each pillow for which you accomplish your sleep task.” Readers who think the shade-in-a-pillow-shaped-box approach is helpful, or at least disarming, and are not put off by the notion of adding a “sleep task” to their other work, are the only ones who will find this tracker congenial. In another section, on “Learning Environment,” a page called “Target Practice” actually shows a target and says, “In the bullseye, write the biggest problem you’re currently facing in regards to academics.” Again, some will like this illustrative approach while others will find it off-putting.

     Every self-help book has its own design that the author thinks will work for readers, of course, and The College Wellness Guide is no exception. But students would be well-advised to look through the book in some detail to be sure Barneson’s writing and graphic style are appealing before trying to use the book to find any sort of help with the inevitable worries and stresses of college life.

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