Newswise — Hugging the wall just outside the Living Well space in the University of Vermont’s Davis Student Center is a long table crowded with tubs of Skippy peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, Nutella, assorted jellies and half a dozen loaves of bread.

The table, staffed by a quartet of students and staff brandishing plastic knives and smiles, is meant to be a magnet for hungry, anxiety-ridden students stressed out by final exams – and it’s working.

At midday on Tuesday of finals week, each station has a line, and a steady of stream of satisfied customers is reentering the fray either munching on a sandwich or carting it off in a baggie.

The comfort food table is a mainstay of UVM's DeStress Central program, says the event's organizer, Parker Holloway, a program coordinator at Living Well, which offers programming throughout the year to help students decrease stress. In its seventh year, DeStress Central makes a range of activities available to students – from the PB&J table and Tarot card readings to much expanded drop-in sessions with counseling center staff to mindfulness and yoga to a beefed up therapy dog program – all designed to soothe their minds and buoy their spirits during high stress finals week.

It’s a program that may be especially needed today. The current crop of college students, at UVM and elsewhere, arrived on campus with more anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on board than preceding generations, studies show.

“If students today are maybe wound up five percent tighter because of social media or global politics or financial circumstances, we want to make sure there are plenty of release valves,” says John Paul Grogan, interim director of Counseling and Psychiatry Services at UVM.

More than a sandwich

With about 800 sandwiches made and distributed, the PB&J event, held Monday through Thursday of finals week from 10 to 2, is a centerpiece of that effort. And while the gloppy menu item is important, it’s often the informal, two minute conversation between the sandwich maker and taker that is the real difference-maker.  

“It isn’t just the peanut butter sandwich,” Grogan says. “It’s the opportunity to have an interaction with a supportive, kind, thoughtful person in the midst of an intense timeframe – the idea that someone cares enough about you to make a sandwich for you.”

Senior Psychological Sciences major Molly Humphries, who scored a fluffernutter, is certainly appreciative.

“I've essentially been locked in my room all day every day studying for my Psychology final,” she says. “It’s really nice to be able to come and grab a quick snack so you don't have to stress about food. When you're doing a lot, little things can be overwhelming, so stuff like this is great. “

Third-year junior nursing student Summer Haverick left the table with a creamy peanut butter and Nutella sandwich in hand and new bounce in her step.

“It is definitely a stressful time,” she says. “Getting a sandwich made for me by someone is just really, really nice. It just makes me feel supported.”

Part of the job

Chatting with students while making sandwich for them is all part of the job, says Harry Chen, executive director of UVM’s Center for Health and Wellbeing, who worked the table on Tuesday and Thursday. 

“If we can connect with students and better understand, what are the ways, what are the strategies we can use to reach them, then that’s good. It's about connecting. We know that when you connect with somebody in person, that's beneficial to them. We take every opportunity we can to do that.”

Amy Boyd Austin, director of UVM’s Catamount Recovery program, who staffed the table with Chen and two students one afternoon, is a master sandwich maker, after participating in the program for years.  

“I am definitely an expert-level peanut butter and jelly sandwich maker at this point,” she says. “What I most enjoy is finding out exactly what will make it a comfort food for them. How did Mom make it? What's your preference? Do you want it thick, do you want it thin? I'm putting love in every sandwich I make.”

Many other schools have programs similar to DeStress Central, including Wake Forest, George Washington, Ohio State, Eastern Kentucky and Westfield State.