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Students and depression: Why am I not happy?

Stress, pressure to perform, burn-out, depression and suicide. In April 2018, mental issues among students were all over the news. Why is it that students seem to suffer more than about twenty years ago? Well, because it probably occurs more often.


‘The shitty thing is that you try to approach it all very rationally, but that does not help. Of course I do not have to be afraid, of course the chance that I fail is small, of course it is not bad at all, and there are still a hundred other great arguments, but that does not take away the bad feelings. The panic, the grinding in your head, the recurring thoughts, the inability to sleep … do I have to continue? ‘

If you have reached the low point, you cannot even listen anymore

For Anne (26), who’s on the verge of graduating, it feels good to be able to talk about it. She really wants to talk about it even, because she wants to let other students know that everything will be okay in the end, that there will be a moment when they will be strong enough to get up again and stop being down. ‘It’s likely that they will not listen to me. Because if you have reached the low point, you cannot even listen anymore. Then I did not even have the urge to talk about it openly, and frankly: I would not have dared to do it either.’

Remarkable disembodiment
Stress will be experienced by everyone, but most students are just as happy as their non-studying peers. Fortunately for most affected students it remains a mild form of psychological distress. Few people will experience what psychiatrist Alex Korzec describes as elements from a medieval depiction of hell: “feelings of mental pain, a remarkable disembodiment where food, sexuality and sleep become impossible and pain and exhaustion seem ubiquitous (…), there is a barrier between the depressed patient and the world, the ability to imagine something pleasant in the future has disappeared (…).”And imagine that for a longer period of time, not days but weeks, months, perhaps forever. It can be that bad, and worse, because it’s different for every patient.

More than half of the students suffer from anxiety and depression complaints

More than half of the students (to be precise 53.3 percent) suffer from anxiety and depression complaints, according to the study Study Climate, Health and Study Success 2017, published this spring. More than half … that is a lot. But that was not even all, because the same research, which was carried out at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, shows that one in five students has suicidal thoughts. That is frankly alarming.

Cause for concern
The research group of the Zwolle researcher Jolien Dopmeier received a lot of criticism. Critics argue that chances are that the research set-up ensured that students with psychological problems participated in particular. In addition, the promise of receiving a prize (the students were eligible for an iTunes Giftcard) affects the reliability of the research.

 Half of the students that my colleagues and I see, have this kind of problem. That was really less when I started as a counsellor here

This and other criticism were also heard on the 17 April at the Spring Conference of the National Organization of Student Counsellors at Universities of Applied Sciences (LOShbo). ‘Yes, there was general doubt about the numbers’, says Marieke Melissen, one of the seven student counsellors at Hanze University. ‘But it would be a shame if we focus only on the polemics about the research method, when there really is cause for concern.’

According to Melissen, the number of applied sciences students with psychological issues is definitely on the rise. ‘All student councillors experience that. Me too. Half of the students that my colleagues and I see, have this kind of problem. That was really less when I started as a counsellor here in 2008. ‘The counsellor’s office estimates that between ten and fifteen percent of Hanze students visit them during their study time. If half of those students have psychological problems, that is a maximum of 7.5 percent of the total. Add the students with a request for help who do not consult a counsellor (they are there too) and you end up with one in ten.`

Lifeless and exhausted
‘That number seems relatively small’, Melissen admits, ‘but I am the last one to downplay the problem. Every student with problems deserves our attention. I mean: I do not think that one in five students is suicidal, that would be really terrible. But with some regularity there is someone here who I really have to ask if I can let him or her go home safely.’

We are worried about what we did yesterday and what we still need to do today and tomorrow

On 16 April, independent stress counsellor Gerlanda Dijkstra tried to answer the question that concerns many students: how do you deal with stress? In a beautiful hall in the Van Swinderenhuis in the Oude Boteringestraat, about a hundred students decided to attend (which is a good number for a Monday evening in the exam weeks).

Everyone is stressed, according to Dijkstra, that is useful, normal and necessary. ‘It gives you the edge, your body is ready for action. That helped you in prehistoric times, when danger threatened you everywhere. And it helps you now, the stress response ensures that you can focus.’ But, according to the stress coach who is working at the nationally operating Stress Center, nowadays there are a lot of stimuli. ‘The pressure to perform is high. We have to do everything. We are worried about what we did yesterday and what we still need to do today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, we also need to know what we want to achieve in our lives.’

Why am I not happy?
At the end of her speech, she shows a sentence on her screen that everyone needs to ask themselves once in a while: Do I have to do this now? ‘Stop at every word and put a question mark behind it: Do? I? have? to? do? this? now?’

We live in the age of constant success, we constantly let each other know how great we are doing

That might be useful for current students, because they seem to set the bar very high for themselves. ‘We live in the age of constant success’, Anne says,’ we constantly let each other know how great we are doing. You are only cool if you are successful, happy and enjoying everything. While you know it’s nonsense, it still gnaws at you. Why am I not happy? Why do I feel insecure?’

Go see the doctor
So who to turn to if you feel unhappy or depressed? ‘Everyone can come to us for a meeting’, says student counsellor Marieke Melissen, ‘we are not care providers or psychiatrists, but we know the way. We have enough experience to see if there is more to it than just a dip. And we also know which therapists you could go to. By the way, good to know: we only recommend therapists we know well. But first you should go to your General Practitioner, because that is the right address, even with psychological problems. ‘

Where can a Hanze student turn to with psychological problems?
1 The student counsellor: Zernikeplein 7, F 3.02, tel. 050 – 595 4028.
2 The General Practitioner (GP) is the place to go for a listening ear and a referral.
3 The Hanze Study Success Centre offers all kinds of courses and training courses