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Worried About Money? You’re Not the Only One

More students taking advantage of counseling services

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The first few weeks at Boston University weren’t easy for Nicole Rojas. Homesick and feeling overwhelmed by her classes, she worried about grades and making friends. But more than anything, she worried about money. In fact, Rojas (COM’12) worried so much that she eventually sought help for anxiety at the BU Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Student Health Services.

Margaret Ross, a psychiatrist and director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic, says she has treated numerous students who have similar worries. “The economy has many students in a panic,” she says. “Some families can no longer afford tuition, and one patient in particular couldn’t come back this semester.”

Rojas, a soft-spoken young woman from a middle-class family, is a victim of the economic recession that has cost more than 2.6 million people their jobs. Last year her father was an up-and-coming manager at a restaurant chain on Long Island. Hardworking and well-liked by his employees, he was expecting a promotion, but when the chain declared bankruptcy in June, he got a pink slip instead.

“It put a huge financial strain on our family,” Rojas says. “And there I was, getting ready to go off to a really expensive college. I could have gone to a state school, but I’d insisted from the very beginning that it was BU or nothing. And then Dad lost his job, and I felt so guilty I could hardly stand it.”

Rojas paid for most of her fall semester tuition with money she’d earned waitressing over the summer. And despite her family’s financial troubles, her parents contributed $4,000. Grants covered the rest.

Five days before Rojas left for Boston, her father got a job offer from out of state, and since September his company has transferred him to three different locations. For the time being, Rojas’ mother, two siblings, and grandmother are staying on Long Island, but the separation isn’t easy on anyone — and neither is the uncertainty. “We have no idea where we’ll end up living,” Rojas says. “Nothing is definite anymore, except that it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

She’s probably right. In December, the national unemployment rate hit 7.2 percent — the highest in 16 years — and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that before this year ends, it will rise to 8 or 9 percent. On January 26 the New York Times reported that U.S. companies planned to lay off at least 75,000 workers.

BU is feeling the pinch, too. President Robert A. Brown said last week that BU’s plan to increase the University’s financial aid reserves has left a $10 million budget gap for fiscal year 2010, which begins on July 1. Since September, requests for midyear financial aid reviews have increased nearly 100 percent from the same period last year, and the University has seen a 15 percent increase in financial aid requests for the incoming class.

To help pay for her spring semester tuition, Rojas took out a loan, but she isn’t sure how she’ll cover next year’s expenses. “I’m just going to work really hard this summer and save every penny I earn,” she says. “The question isn’t whether I’m coming back, but how.”

Lisa Smith, director of BU’s Psychological Services Center, clinical director of the BU Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and a College of Arts and Sciences clinical associate professor of psychology, says feelings of anger, resentment, and sadness are not uncommon among children whose parents are struggling financially. “A loss of income is a threat to one’s financial security,” she says. “And that can wreak havoc on a person’s emotions.”

Smith says that some slight anxiety is not always bad, because it can motivate students to take proactive steps, such as applying for financial aid or getting a part-time job. But often, she says, the anxiety can become as problematic as its causes. Three weeks into her first semester, for example, Rojas had a panic attack that landed her in Beth Israel Hospital.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” she recalls. “I had a horrible headache, and I felt so lonely and isolated. And I couldn’t stop blaming myself for everything that had happened to my dad.”

Psychiatrist Ross says feelings of guilt are understandable under such circumstances, but they are also dangerous. “I ask my patients to try and focus away from the guilt and concentrate instead on methods of self-care,” she says. “Eating well, exercising, and keeping to a regular sleeping schedule are critical to overcoming stress, and attending class, socializing with friends, and studying are equally important.”

Most important, says Ross, students who are feeling anxious or depressed should share their concerns with someone they trust, whether it is a friend, a professor, or a therapist from the Behavioral Medicine Clinic or the Psychological Services Center. “Isolating yourself is the worst thing you can do,” she says, “because it magnifies everything in your mind.”

The day after she left the hospital, Rojas met with a therapist from the Behavioral Medicine Clinic. “It was kind of awkward because I’d never been in therapy before,” she says. “But talking about things helped. I found myself just blurting things out.”

Spring semester has proven a bit easier for Rojas. She’s made some new friends, and she’s keeping busy with classes and earning extra cash through a work-study job. “I pay for everything I buy,” she says proudly. “My textbooks, meals out — everything.”

While she doesn’t know what the future holds, she believes that she is now better equipped to deal with her feelings of uncertainty. “When I feel myself start to panic, I ask myself, is this going to affect me in five years?” she says. “If the answer is no, I try to just let it go.”

The following mental-health services are available to all full-time Boston University students.

Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Student Health Services, 881 Commonwealth Ave.

The staff at the Behavioral Medicine Clinic specializes in short-term psychological treatment. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Fridays. Therapists are on call 24 hours a day for emergencies. Call 617-353-3569 for an appointment.

Psychological Services Center, 648 Beacon St., 5th floor

The Psychological Services Center provides psychological services to Boston University students, faculty, and staff. Services are offered on a sliding fee scale and are provided by doctoral-level psychology students. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays. Call 617-358-4290 for an appointment.

Boston University Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, 648 Beacon Street, 6th floor

The Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders treats anxiety, mood, eating, sleep, and related disorders. Treatment is free for patients who qualify. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Fridays. Call 617-353-9610 for more information.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Worried About Money? You’re Not the Only One

  • Anish on 01.29.2009 at 12:57 pm

    Discrimination

    It is frustrating to see the administration touting all the ‘help and support’ being offered to students. Emails to students, counseling sessions and letters to parents. All this is a marketing gimmick because when push comes to shove we aren’t getting the actual help we need to stay in school

    I have met with every possible department at BU that had been advertised as having the capacity to help students facing difficulty because of the economic climate. The ONLY offer of help I received was assistance with ‘planning my leave of absence’. That does not help me at all.

    BU goes around the world touting its ‘diversity’ and its ‘large international student body’. In fact this is one of its key marketing lines used to recruit prospective freshman. Yet when we, as international students, need help the administration does not seem to care. Nor does it seem to realize that the GLOBAL ECONOMIC MELTDOWN affects international students just as harshly as US citizens. Wonderful.

    If BU is doing everything it can to keep its students in school and provide assistance…doing nothing for international students is selective and highly targeted discrimination.

    Still struggling.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2009 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you Student Health Services for helping this student. She needed you.

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