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HEALTH SENTINEL, A COLUMN BY JENNIFER L. BOEN

Stressbusters cuts student stress at colleges

Program founder said it possibly also could help in workplaces and other settings

Monday, January 20, 2014 - 12:36 pm

An innovative, free program is reducing stress in college students across the nation and has the potential to do the same in the workplace, in high schools and other settings.

Jordan Friedman founded Stressbusters in 1996. At the time, he was director of Columbia University in New York's health education program.

Student volunteers are trained to give 5- to 7-minute back rubs at campus Stressbusters events. Recipients sign up in advance for a back rub. Students are warmly welcomed by the volunteers and sit in chairs in a group setting for their back, neck and hand rub.

The program makes clear the distinction between what is provided in a back or neck rub versus massage given by a massage therapist. Staff can also participate.

Stressbusters is now on 16 university campuses, including such places as Harvard and Rutgers. Most recently, the University of Arizona became a Stressbusters campus. No Indiana universities have the program, but Friedman hopes that will change soon.

Though Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne does not have the Stressbusters program, “it definitely is one we want to consider,” said Judy Tillapaugh, IPFW wellness/fitness coordinator.

IPFW offers other free services to help reduce student stress, Tillapaugh said, including the Peer Education Program, the Center for Healthy Living: Campus Clinic and Wellness Programs, and counseling through the IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program in the Dean of Students' office.

According to the American College Health Association, stress is the No. 1 barrier to academic success.

In an effort to alleviate that problem, Friedman is tracking the success of the Stressbusters program. Students are given pre- and post-back rub questionnaires based on the Stress Scale for Adolescents.

Initial results found among 1,100 people queried, 85 percent to 90 percent reported moderate to extreme stress on the pre-backrub test.

Those numbers dropped at least in half and in some cases more than half on the post-test, Friedman said.

“We've seen so much impact, including reducing feelings of loneliness, feelings of being overwhelmed, feelings of inability to complete things,” he said. “Back rub recipients are not the only beneficiaries.

“When I first created Stressbusters, I was thinking much more about the recipients of the back rubs,” he said. “But we started to hear from the volunteers providing the back rubs. It was really benefiting them equally.

“The volunteers can focus on something besides studies,” Friedman added. “Their altruistic participation results in people telling them, 'You're amazing,' or 'You made my day,'” he said.

Campus health centers are frequently the sponsors of the program, which has a start-up franchise cost of about $6,500. Some universities have interdepartmental sponsorship to cover the cost, realizing stress reduction has positive impact on every area of life.

While the back rub is the centerpiece of the program, Friedman said up to 45 percent of those who go to a Stressbusters event say it was their first contact with campus health services. The events provide resource connection to counseling services, alcohol and drug education, and other health and wellness programs.

The program can be adapted to the workplace, Friedman said, though no company has done so yet. He sees it as a way to leverage recruitment of talented, young workers who want ready access to health-improvement programs.

Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.