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Counseling and Psychological Services is taking a systematic approach to solving the problem of stress — consistently ranked as the number-one concern for students at Penn.

Piloted this fall in three College Houses, the iComm Initiative — a series of surveys and workshops on stress management — emerged from a number of interviews, focus groups and town hall meetings held by CAPS in 2010 and 2011.

“We wanted to start with more evidence-based data about what the students wanted and felt would work,” CAPS Director Bill Alexander said. “Rather than treating stress one person at a time, we wanted to see if there was something we could do systematically … to influence in a positive way the student experience of stress.”

After issuing mandatory surveys addressing topics from stress levels to helping friends with problems, the iComm initiative followed program participants from Hill, Fisher-Hassenfeld and Ware college houses — as well as a control group that did not participate — for the entire semester.

Half of the Hill residents and all Ware residents also participated in a stress management workshop during New Student Orientation, while the remainder of Hill and all of Fisher did not.

CAPS Research Director Eran Magen explained that students often struggle with interacting with someone who is upset because they want a “quick fix” to an uncomfortable situation.

“People who were at the workshops self-reported that when friends approached them feeling stressed, the way they responded was much more in line with what we were teaching in the workshop,” he said.

The goal of iComm is to “reduce the experience of stress [through] social connectedness,” according to Alexander.

“Penn is a huge school — where do students find their niche and their group of friends?” he added.

According to Magen, about 80 percent of student participants reported that they would recommend the program to their friends.

While College freshman Tara Kutzbach was “a little confused” by survey questions about how many friends she had at Penn since the survey was released so early in the year, she believes a stress workshop for freshmen would be beneficial.

“It’s definitely good to keep tabs on peoples’ stress levels — it’s something that can be a problem,” she said.

College freshman Aneesha Raghunathan agreed, adding that “perhaps the survey could have been a bit shorter and maybe CAPS could have followed up the surveys with session appointments or something for students who were stressed.”

The data gathered from the 1,500 participants — which is still being processed — will be used to revamp iComm in order to expand it to the rest of Penn this fall. CAPS will also work to tailor the program to specific populations like students involved in Greek life.

For College freshman Josh Rad, some of the strategies taught during iComm helped him “learn a bit more about how people can get depressed or down in college — and it made me feel comfortable knowing that any feelings I had I was not alone with,” he said.

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