By Amélie Snijders and Mieke Pressley
Acquiring a university degree has never been a simple task. It inevitably goes hand in hand with many hours of hard work and the occasional unhappiness about having to spend this time on studying, writing a paper or preparing for a presentation. Recently, however, there appears to be an increase in the difficulties experienced by students during their studies. Recent research by de Volkskrant tells us that the number of students with mental health issues is continuously rising. Student psychologists in the Netherlands have noted the frequent visits by students struggling with exhaustion, concentration problems and panic attacks, often paired with addiction. 2016 statistics from the University of Amsterdam, revealed that a shocking 29% of students experience poor concentration, another 24% deals with performance anxiety, and a quarter of the student population walks around with suicidal thoughts. And this is not purely a Dutch phenomenon. This year, The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) shared that a total of 85% of the American student population admitted to feeling completely overwhelmed with all the academics they had on their plates at a certain point, and 40% experiences frequent anxiety. A New York Times article further records that 30% of freshmen starting college in the US will not stay long enough to experience their Sophomore year. Of this 30%, a substantial number drops out due to ‘not being able to handle’ university pressure. A report by The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) noted 65% of Australian students living in fear of failing their studies. But what is the cause of these elevated mental health problems in students? While it is impossible to neatly pinpoint one sole reason, growing work pressure, the need to achieve and the notion that one should always give more and more, are considered as the main causes. Currently, in the final weeks of our semester, we can see academic work pressure take its toll on the members of our university as well. Classes are now filled with bleary-eyed and weary-faced fellow students wrapped up in those last exams and deadlines, and the standard response to “How are you?” seems to have become: “Good, but tired/stressed/so busy.” We wished to approach the topic of mental health, with performance anxiety in particular, at our University. How do we, students deal with work pressure and how does our institution go about promoting the importance of maintaining good mental health to us?
Student counsellor Karen van den Berg’s office can be found up a small staircase on a landing near the Student Office. She tells me that the number of students who visit her office during the academic year is a consistent one, this being between 100 and 105 students. Semester-wise the number of students stepping into her office is slightly higher in the Fall semester (“This semester I’ve seen close to 70,” she says). This is partly due to the turbulent transition period first-years can go through when first stepping into this new environment. Ms. van den Berg tries to get in touch and make students aware that they do not have to crop up any of their issues. “We try to get the message across at the very beginning of the semester: please ask for help!” For Ms. van den Berg, taking that first step of asking for help is the biggest one a student can take and the first one to get yourself “out of what is really a vicious circle.” While admitting the need to speak to a counsellor is already so much less stigmatized than, say, 20 years ago, many students are still likely to take the ‘power-through’ approach, feeling like they’ve failed or admitted defeat when they reach out to someone. “Some students say that they feel embarrassed about having to come to see me,” Karen reveals. This need to continuously appear put together, and on top of your things can be considered as a product of peer pressure. The pressure to achieve, to get those A’s and simultaneously juggle a board, a society and maybe even a job are standards we impose on ourselves and, to an extent, on each other.
“This emphasis on good grades is not actually what the teachers want,” Karen mentions. Seeing fellow students obsess over grades and push themselves to the edge to be able to graduate with a 4.0 GPA can affect us, and it becomes quite possible that “you start to measure yourself by the same terms.” Nonetheless, the institution itself can seem like a pressuring one when it comes to achievement. When talking to two third-semester students about their moderation meetings, two different sides of the coin were revealed. Both admitted to their panel that they preferred to have a slightly less intense university career and were therefore happy to strive for B’s as opposed to the often anticipated high A’s. The first student was encouraged to follow this philosophy, his choice considered a healthy one. The second student, on the other hand, was told that he should aim higher and was selling himself short. It would appear that while the pressure to achieve is in part imposed by ourselves and our fellows, UCR does in some cases prod and encourage its members to live up to a certain expected level. We are part of an Honors college, after all.
In 2017, UCR scored rather low on the national student survey compared to other Dutch university colleges. The two main issues that were mentioned were the lack of student facilities and the high workload. The Director of Education, Anya Luscombe, explains that it can be difficult to deal with these scores since the score points to a possible problem, but pinpointing why the students find the workload too high is much harder as the workload has not increased over the years. UCR has been researching why the score would be low and has turned its attention to a number of things. Their first focus was admission and recruitment. Do the prospective students really have the right profile for UCR? Are they truly interested in multiple disciplines or mostly in one or two, which could lead to them being disappointed and unhappy when having to study subjects they do not like? Additionally, do the prospective students understand that a Liberal Arts & Sciences program does not mean complete subject freedom? UCR has the ambition to provide its students both with depth and breadth in their education, quite a difficult and demanding goal. In order to answer these questions, UCR set up the orientation period, first launched last August for the 2021 graduates. Looking back, the
Director believes that to a large extent they succeeded in their goal of expectation management; students gave feedback that they knew what to expect in their first semester because of orientation. Students were less satisfied with the complete separation of social events and academic events due to the two-week orientation period. Therefore, in the coming orientation period for the 2022 graduates, there will be more integration of social and academic events. UCR is also looking at how communication with other students can be improved and how students can be encouraged to ask for advice at an early stage. Additionally, the study skills center teaches students the practical side of studying at an Honors College and can help students a long way in getting their life on track.
The two main contributors to the Study Skills Center at UCR, located in classroom 12 in Eleanor, are Christine Leedy and Christine Crommelin. They organize workshops multiple times a year which focus on planning and setting priorities. According to Ms. Crommelin, the main organizer of the workshops, the goal is to create awareness of the intense study load at UCR and the ways of dealing with it. Students should have the right expectations and be able to spend time understanding which method of studying works best for them. Some students might prefer starting with an easy task and building up to the more difficult ones while for others, it might be better to reverse this order. Ms. Crommelin calls it your hidden fifth course at UCR: finding what method of working fits your personality and sticking to it. During the workshops, Ms. Crommelin often experiences that students present themselves as procrastinators. However, she tries to show the students that they are not procrastinators but instead behave like procrastinators. By realizing this (and thus becoming aware) it shows that students can change this behavior and most importantly that students feel that they are back in charge of their own process. She mentions that the main advice she gives to students is: “to address every bear on the road when they come up”. Starting with a long-term planning at the beginning of the semester can prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed when unexpected situations pop up. The main challenge for most people is to combine academic work with social events and moments of sports or other relaxing activities. Prioritization is a skill in itself to develop and investigating what needs to be done when, requires insights about how ones works best. Each student has a different way and it is worthwhile to invest time in that process. In the long run, these skills are a tool for life!
Christine Leedy, UCR’s writing coach, is available to all students who need advice or help when writing an essay. Ms. Leedy explains that students often struggle to structure their work, which can lead to immense stress since the information in their head is not getting onto the paper in the way they want to. She helps them find the right structure and of course helps them with any practical issues like spelling and grammar. More and more students have learnt to find her over the years when they are struggling with their written work. She finds it particularly satisfying to see her students grow over the years and become masters of their own written word. She echoes Ms. Crommelin in saying that taking time to figure out what is exactly making the student feel overwhelmed is often the most important because the only way to find a solution is by identifying the root cause.
The Senior Tutor, Karolien Walravens, explains that students can also go to their tutor when they are struggling with performance pressure or with the high workload at UCR. While tutors are not trained professionals, they are there to offer pastoral care to students. In the case of a more serious mental health issue, tutors have been trained to know who to refer their tutees to, either the student counsellor or to their GP for a referral to a psychologist. Nevertheless, she believes that the most important task of a tutor is to help their tutees figure out where their problem lies. Ms. Walravens explains that, according to student feedback, empathy and listening skills are highly valued. By listening to their tutees, the tutor and tutee can determine why the student is feeling overwhelmed and find a solution to that specific issue together. In order to promote this, UCR has been selecting its tutors more carefully over the years, resulting in some professors having more tutees while other professors teach more frequently. Interestingly, when we asked Ms. Walravens whether she actually saw a rise in leaves of absence or drop-outs, she replied in the negative. The number of students that quit UCR temporarily or permanently citing mental health reasons, has remained stable over the past few years.
In the end, it is not purely grades that keep us up at night and may push us over the edge. The 21st-century student is faced with a lot more expectations than they used to be. It is no longer an impressive feat to graduate alone. Students want to excel, and besides their academics juggle an array of extracurricular activities. It is not uncommon to see UCR students attempt to balance a couple of boards, a society or two, as well as a part-time job, this all combined with an aim to graduate with honors, or cum laude or higher. And then, of course, there’s the matter of trying to figure out what to do next: what will you study and where will you go later on? We feel that students have a lot more on their mind in this time and age, which can lead to an overwhelming feeling. “There so much happening,” Ms. van den Berg notes. “There’s that first transition and then your choices about what you want to do, the expectations that one holds for himself, and then perfectionism comes in… There’s a lot of different demands.” UCR, for its part, is attempting to bring the issue forward as much as they can, reminding students that there are options for those who are feeling overwhelmed, blue or stressed beyond belief. Ms. Leedy and Ms. Crommelin are big advocates for the mindfulness courses that the Study Skills center organizes. These courses, taught by a neuroscientist, attempt to give students peace of mind by making them aware of their behavioral patterns, aiding them in organizing their workload. Furthermore, Karen van den Berg mentioned that UCR is looking into setting up a pilot stress-reduction training program in the upcoming semester. The program would consist out of a series of practical and educational evening sessions in a group format during which students, with the help of two mental health consultants, are taught how to manage their stress levels. A combination of common behavioral therapy and body-oriented therapy will be applied to guide students through the process. Ms. van den Berg hopes that the project will form a safe space for those struggling students who feel less inclined to ask for help, to work through the pressure. During these final weeks, it can be hard to convince yourself that you will get through this, but you will. Slowly, but surely, you’ll tie up the final knots, tick off those last exams, print off those final papers, and before you know it, you’ll be enjoying a well-deserved break.
Anya Luscombe – The Director of Education of UCR
Christine Leedy – The Writing Coach of UCR
Christine Crommelin – Study Skills Center Contact Person
Karen van den Berg – Student Counsellor
Image Source: https://oconnorpg.com/10-tips-deal-academic-stress/
This article was originally published in the Tabula Rasa Rainbow Print Edition in December 2018.