Lately I’ve been hearing more and more students complain about stress, deadlines, fatigue or sleeplessness, and the fact that there are only 24 hours in one day. We want to study, build an extensive network, create a good resume that will differentiate us from all the other students that will apply for the jobs we want ourselves, and we want to enjoy our time as a student to the fullest. We want to join committees, associations, parties, festivals, and make sure that we do not miss out on anything. Combining all the fun that the student life brings with studying itself is challenging enough, but appears doable. However, the fact that students experience high pressure to perform and choose the right balance in studies, work, and social activities, explains the high number of mental health problems among students. Depression, anxiety disorders and even suicidal thoughts are the most common kinds of mental health problems at universities. These problems are the result of the high pressure, stress, and lack of structure. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ research, one out of four students has a diagnosable mental illness, and Folia stated that three percent of all students have at least once considered suicide, which is the highest percentage in years. How could these numbers have increased so significantly, and what should you do about these mental health problems when you are facing them yourself? What are the options at the university, and are there even enough?
There are several factors that led to the severe increase in mental health problems among students. Already mentioned were the experienced high pressure, stress, and lack of structure. One important cause of these factors is that students move out of their parents’ house when they start studying . Especially for students who move from a small village to a big city such as Amsterdam, this is a rather big step –not to mention the culture shock international students face. The fact that you are suddenly on your own, when you know so little people around you, makes many people feel lonely. Besides that, your parents are not around to check on you to see if you are doing fine. If you do not get enough sleep or are eating very unhealthy, there is no one to make any objections to your behaviour. Luckily there are students associations to solve the problem of loneliness. However, not everyone likes to join these associations, but if students decide to join one, the mandatory drinks are taking a lot of time. The decision whether to join an association is one thing to consider when you start at university, but is not the only decision to make that causes the experienced loneliness or high pressure by students. It is often emphasized that your four (or five, or six) years at university are going to be the greatest years of your entire life, since you do not really that have many responsibilities, and you are free to do whatever you like. So what is it that makes students stressed and depressed if they are free to do whatever they like, while not really having any responsibilities? Well, that is it: the freedom of choice is what is bothering many students right now.
Freedom of choice among millennials
Millennials have grown up with the idea that they can build their future the way they want it to be. There are no boundaries to whatever you want to achieve, because your dreams really can come true. This freedom is to be cherished, since it is a privilege to have so many opportunities at hand. These opportunities are the result of a good education and living in wealthy countries. However, students often experience these opportunities as a burden, since the only one responsible for failure is you. If you are not as successful as you have wished for, then it is only yourself to blame. This responsibility is exerting pressure on the choices students make, which are quite a lot: what and where to study; where to live; who to meet; what association to join; what part-time job to apply for; how to upgrade your resume; when to sport, etc. And not only are there many things to decide on, there are also many options for every choice to make. When I for example chose the UvA’s bachelor’s programme of Economics & Business out of the nine Dutch universities that offer economic bachelor’s programmes, I had also considered four of the other 69 bachelor’s programmes offered at the UvA. The answer to the question ‘what to study’ thus seems quite complicated, while many students, including me, feel as if this choice will determine much of the life you are going to lead.
If some of these life-changing choices turn out to be the wrong, stress and sometimes even depression are the consequences. Psychologist Barry Schwartz talked about the phenomena of ‘over-choice’ in his 2005 TED-talk The Paradox of Choice. He argues that the enormous freedom of choice leads to either paralysis or less satisfaction. The fact that students face many choices simultaneously thus leads to unsatisfactory states of mental health.
Furthermore, on social media millennials (students) are continuously confronted with the stories of extraordinary successful young people. It is likely that students compare themselves with these exceptional cases, since they become mainstream through social media. This kind of framing increases the pressure that students face.
Mental health at the university
To get a better understanding of what the UvA is actually doing to solve mental health issues at campus, I spoke to Tufan Kiziltekin, member of the FSR. This year, Kiziltekin decided to open a mental-health-file at the FEB to raise awareness for the problem. Right now, students can approach the student psychologists, but according to Kiziltekin, this is not enough. After a student has decided to seek for help, one can contact these psychologists, and starts with an introductory session. During this 10-minute-conversation, the student and psychologist determine whether the problem can be solved with regular sessions or whether it is better to find help elsewhere. Only problems concerning study motivation, concentration or stress are problems to discuss with them. When the mental problems become more severe – the mental health issues become general health issues, are serious in nature or present for a longer time period – the psychologists advice students to go to the general practitioner. Kiziltekin argues that the UvA should offer this kind of psychological help, but that this is only the treatment of symptoms and not the problem. The university should create a more open, positive, and safe atmosphere in which students will experience less pressure and stress, which will in turn lead to better mental health, because students will then be partly released from stress.
Kiziltekin states that mindfulness should be a great way to accomplish this. When students start living in the moment, they will be able to oversee all the choices they have to make. This will lead to more optimism, and with a positive mindset stress could not be a problem anymore. ‘Because life is going so fast, and we see many successful young professionals on social media, we want to identify ourselves with them. We feel as if that kind of expectations are drafted around us, but we do not have to meet any of these extraordinarily high expectations, because they are not realistic. The only thing we have to keep in mind is what we want to achieve and what we need to get there. As long as we are focused on our goals, we can achieve anything we want. No one is expecting you to achieve it right now, so give yourself time to achieve it. If anything goes wrong, be willing to learn from it, and try to look at it in a positive way.’
Kilziltekin hopes that by starting a Facebook-page and organizing some meetings, more students will share his positive way of thinking, cause that is the thing that needs to be stimulated in order to provide students with some stress relief.
All in all, student life is a once in a lifetime experience and we should really try to make the best of it. By constantly focussing on what others do and what we should do to keep up with other one’s expectations, we feel dissatisfied by the choices we make. Mental health problems are a serious problem among students and we should really try to solve it, because in theory student life is the best you could wish for. A lot of freedom, gaining some knowledge and developing your social skills: let’s hope the student life will be the time of your life in practice as well.