Behind the Walls

Perspectives on UCU students’ general happiness and coping with mental wellbeing issues

By Elena Butti, Ivo Dimitrov, Klementina Ristovska and Welmoed van Ens

International Mental Health Awareness Month, Eating Disorder Awareness Week and Self Harm Awareness Week all went by unnoticed this semester. Talk about these issues on campus is rare, but the problems can’t be kept out by the gates. How happy are UCU students beneath the surface? And how comfortable do we feel to share when feeling unhappy?

No data is available on mental health among UCU students, making it difficult to claim how we compare to students elsewhere. Opinions are not only subjective, but also varied. We wondered if certain factors, specific to the UCU environment, make UCU students particularly vulnerable to falling into severe unhappiness. Interviewees shared their opinions and experiences of how academic and social life at UCU have affected them emotionally.

For some students, the academic standards that UCU sets seem too high. “I pushed my limits further and further but at a certain point you cannot go further,” says a second-year. “I felt like I did not belong at UCU because I did not feel that I had the level needed to be here. I felt like a failure.”

According to many of the interviewees, the constant academic pressure and competitive environment pose a major burden upon students’ mental wellbeing. “If you don’t get good grades, you just don’t fit in here,” says another second-year. “You can’t openly talk about how awfully difficult it is to cope with the academic load, because then others see you as ‘just not smart enough’.”

Yet, others think the heavy workload and resulting stress is constructed by students themselves. When boasting about spending 10 hours in Voltaire, we perhaps fail to mention the coffee breaks, prolonged facebooking sessions and chatting with friends. “How many people on campus sit down and work from 9 to 5 every weekday? Hardly anybody. Yet we feel overwhelmed, stressed and unhappy with our current situation, which, let’s be honest, is quite relaxed compared to regular working life,” says third-year Paula Kaanders.

“I think this view of UCUers being hardcore workaholics is self-generated within the very boundaries of our bubble, with a hint of short-sightedness and arrogance,” adds a second-year.

The chicken or the egg?

By Laurance Herfs
Illustration by Laurance Herfs

Does UCU produce or select overachievers? The selection criteria might play an important role in creating the highly competitive environment here. Director of Education Fried Keesen agrees that “when you look for people with a drive you evoke a natural risk that you select overachievers. If these students fail to meet their own expectations they can indeed develop depressive feelings.”

He explains that the selection standards had to be raised due to the increasing number of applicants in recent years. Paula believes we can already see the effects: “We are accepting more and more perfectionists who, rather than thrive in our campus environment, engage in a self-destructive behavior as they enter an environment where getting As is the peer-pressured norm. Committees see decreased numbers of active members and low turn-out for events, and the bar is empty on most party nights. Meanwhile the Voltaire quiet area is busier than ever.”

The bubble effect?

Intuitively, residential living should help against feeling lonely. We are constantly surrounded by fellow students and share our physical and private space with friends and acquaintances. Paradoxically though, factors connected to living in a close-knit community might in fact exacerbate the situation.

“UCU is a hyper-social place and people develop a very insular mentality. And when things are very social, for some this can be an additional stressor,” third-year Andi O’Rourke says. “When there is a lot going on around you, but you don’t feel a part of it, then that just makes [your situation] worse.”

Yet, for Andi, it is merely a perception of an all-inclusive social life that makes some of us unhappy. “In essence, it is only a handful of socially dedicated people who regularly go to the bar for example, or participate in a bunch of committees,” she adds.

“UCU’s social culture is very participatory. The norm is that the more you put in, the more you get out of it. As such, it is questionable to what extent people who do not want to get engaged can still find their place here and feel good,” second-year Michel Goelz says.

Facebook is yet another dimension through which the perception of the socially active “everyone else” is reinforced. “Everybody is friends with everybody on Facebook and everybody is constantly online. You are bombarded with pictures of events and happy groups of people and this can hardly leave you indifferent. […] Mostly, it makes me feel insecure and not sufficiently involved,” says a second-year.

Learning the social rules

According to some, the mere experience of Introweek might set the scene in a ‘skewed’ way. “The very first week that students experience here is so structured and stuffed with events that it even limits people in finding their own niche,” Michel says. “I felt like I was pushed to do things I didn’t feel like doing and socialize with people I didn’t choose”.

Similarly, others feel that from the very beginning, newbies are socialized into a particular “UCU is great” narrative, which becomes difficult to break and resist.

One second year says, “In Introweek UCU is presented as some kind of a magical place where unhappiness does not exist. When first-years realize that it’s not all butterflies and rainbows, they might think they are the only ones and that something is ‘wrong’ with them.”

This need to conform to a highly positive image of campus might be why some of us feel uneasy to share their frustrations about UCU life. “UCU students tend to create an overly positive view of themselves, which makes you feel insecure about your problems. It closed me off completely – how come I felt bad while everyone else was having such a great time? It’s an illusion, yes, but it’s definitely an obstacle in socializing,” says second-year Monta Berke.

Another second year felt similar: “No one knew that I cried every night because I was struggling with my English. I felt like such a failure. In front of everyone I was okay and everything was great, but having to put on this face for everyone was hard”.

How do we deal with these problems?

“I am always willing to discuss welfare concerns in depth with students and am also able to refer students to the UU’s own team of professional psychologists – or to a range of off-campus alternatives,” Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin says.

Some students think it is unacceptable that there is no professional psychologist on campus. “The UU psychologists are not familiar with the specifics of the UCU environment,” says a second-year.

Baldwin remarks that the support structure in place at UCU is extensive. “Students are free to raise any issues with me, their own tutors, the Senior Tutor, or a range of other UCU staff.” Senior Tutor Jocelyn Ballantyne stresses that it is up to students to make use of the offered support.

Coping strategies employed by students are diverse. Some simply keep themselves occupied: “To get past this unhappiness you need to be busy. I put all my unhappiness into dancing and I still need that to ‘survive’ here at UCU.”

For others the solution is talking about the problem. “At first you think you are the only one who feels like crap,” says a second-year. “Once you open up, you realize that so many other students feel the same way and you feel less alone.”

Ballantyne proposes stepping out of the bubble: “I always tell my students: do something outside! Get a job at Albert Heijn, volunteer, but do something. This helps to appreciate what we have on campus more.”

Critical outlook

Baldwin stresses that “the same set of conditions affect us all in very unique ways, and there are students who react positively to certain levels of stress”. Feeling unhappy also changes over time for every individual. “During one semester a student may feel bad, but it becomes better later, or vice versa. The situation can even change week by week.”

We are certainly not the only ones our age encountering problems. Students everywhere are likely to deal with feelings of detachment, loneliness and coping stress. “This is not something about UCU, but it is more evident here, because for many people the choice to come to UCU is not conventional,” says a third-year.

Ballantyne agrees that “these issues are just more visible here because we live in such a small-knit community. If your unit mate has a problem, of course you will realize it.”

Moving forward

Opinions will remain different and confined to the individual experience. The one thing that has become undeniably clear is that there are students at UCU who struggle. Whether it be academic dissatisfaction, unhappiness or a serious psychological problem – some students are dealing with these issues.

As one student pointed out, “simply feeling ‘heard’ by someone can already make a huge difference. When we pick up on signs of mental health problems, being there for each other should be something completely natural to all of us.” That way we can reach out, support, listen and eventually overcome problems. Let’s start the dialogue now.

Send us an e-mail if you want to express your opinion in response to this story.

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