Higher Education is Mental

stress-groeningWhile Yentl wrote about the over-sensitivity and the tendency to romanticize melancholy that seems to apply to our generation, I’d like to write about what also seems to be a big issue for people around twenty. Perhaps it goes hand in hand, or little finger in little finger, with the over-sensitivity that we were raised with, bottom line is that there is a problem.

A couple of years ago, just around the time I started university, while skimming my way through the humongous pile of flyers, newspaper articles about the shrinking labour market that my mother had started gathering for me and a general load of information that you would need three brains for to process, I read something about how a lot of students had to deal with psychological issues during their studies. It seemed logical to me that causes were, for instance, due to unstable living environments. Since I counted myself lucky that I did not have to deal with that, and seeing those psychological issues as something far removed from me, I soon forgot about the article.

That is, fast forward two years, until I found myself reading flyers at the student psychologist’s office, after having to admit that I had become one of those students. I found out the number that had been described as many was actually 49 per cent – half of the students have to deal with psychological issues, and for many of them, from both university and HBO this is due to the pressure that is put on them because of their study.

Research of the LSVb (Landelijke Studenten Vakbond/ National Student Union) elaborates that the most common issues are depression, fatigue, stress, anxiety, as well as performance anxiety, concentration issues, burn outs, and demotivation. Although I was slightly surprised by the number, I was not surprised by the causes. I did want to know how it could possibly be solved.

Some people may try to hand you a straightforward answer: students just should not want to do it all. Students should realize, they say, that it is impossible to study the required amount of hours a week – which is 40 hours, as you may know, and manage to gather enough points to have a bachelor within three years. All this while holding a part-time job so you can live on your own, preferably something that helps you build your resume for future use and if that is not possible both a job and an extra curricular activity aimed at the future career. We should not forget that a social life outside of it is important as well, probably involving study or student associations, sport clubs and/or just a circle of friends outside of that – they promised you this would be the best time of your life – and besides that, have enough time to relax every once in a while. Just summing it all up makes me want to crawl into a nice pillow fort with a dozen of books, television series and food and preferably never come out to face my responsibilities ever again. Oh, and hopefully those are your only activities, and you do not have any hobbies, a need to sleep at least 6 of the recommended 8 hours a night and a natural inclination to become an adult (which comes with enough problems on its own).

In order to minimize the stress, students are advised to stop doing, or at least cut back on doing some of these things. Naturally not on studying – heaven knows where you end up if you do not study at least 40 hours a week! Under a bridge, probably, trying to find out which of the needles lying on the ground next to you is the cleanest. And even when cutting back on the hours – which, at least 80% of the students is doing already, 168 hours a week is not enough to keep doing the things you have to do to ensure a future career, especially when your field of choice is not economics, medicine, science or law, and to get a degree in time to evade a crippling debt. If you need a bit longer than three years you probably end up under that aforementioned bridge accompanied by those needles of debatable cleanliness as your debt in combination with the shrinking labour market and the fact that you decided not to do that one internship because you could not handle more debt and stress means that you’re basically done with.

Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons not to stop on activities that are not your studies, job or internship. Relaxation, sleep and a social life are important for every person. You cannot order someone to just stop living for a couple of years and just to build a future.

Now, of course, every person has their own capacity of how much they can handle, and plenty students manage to do very well; everyone divides their priorities differently. Even if for some, or for many, this problem is caused by the way we have been raised to be very sensitive, the amount of students who do not completely manage is, well, mental. At some point, I hope to find figures about how our parents’ generation was doing mentally, although it is impossible exclude the current shrinking labour market and the time pressure caused by the financial situation from the equation.

Perhaps we should look a bit beyond what the students do, and a bit more at what the government does. The ultimate question is: what happens when eventually half of the higher educated population sits at home with panic attacks, fatigue or a burn out?




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