In the Wake of ‘Behind the Walls’

The Boomerang Follows up on Mental Health at UCU.

By Welmoed van Ens, Ivo Dimitrov, Anna Dolman and Sabella Berkhout

In March the Boomerang reported on student well-being in Behind the WallsHalf a year later, the topics raised in the article still regularly find their way into our conversations, both on campus and online. Recently, a group of students initiated a conference, aiming to turn discussion into action. As you’re reading this, a report of their findings is making its way to College Hall. What events generated such a strong movement amongst our student body? And will this change our community? The Boomerang follows up.

Initial reactions

February, 2012. A remark from one of our writers about the prevalence of psychological problems in our community prompts the Boomerang to investigate the topic in depth. The goal is clear: finding out how much our mental health is influenced by our direct environment, and to what extent we are willing to talk openly about this issue. Dozens of interviews with students, staff and alumni were conducted for an extended cover story in the March issue: Behind the Walls.

The article covered diverse opinions. Some considered UCU’s intense social and academic environment a major contributor to problems in the student population and expressed their concerns about stress, anxiety, peer pressure and even depression and eating disorders. Others pointed out that UCU might attract students who are prone to developing problems or that we simply notice more problems because we live in such a close-knit community. The one thing that became undeniably clear is that problems exist, but that openness was lacking.

Initially, the discussion sparked by the article was limited to private conversations amongst students, but it went public during the elections GA on the 25th of April. Rens Bakker asked UCSA candidate Sil Boedi Scholte how he was going to address the issues described in Behind the Walls. Sil, who was elected chair of the UCSA later that night, pointed out that it was hard to reach the students that were struggling, but also emphasized that the board would be open to talk about these issues. When asked to reflect, Bakker told the Boomerang that he was not satisfied with Sil’s reply, stating: “As the UCSA Chair, the various pressures that affect many students on campus should be one of your primary concerns.” Although Bakker might have been disappointed in what he considered lack of vision, he did manage to bring the discussion on mental health out in the open.

UCU in the media and online

The topic was brought to students’ attention once more when the well-known Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer published an article on excellence in higher education on the 5th of June. The article, titled Competition on Campus, outlines the recent shift towards excellence in Dutch universities and how this is affecting students, quoting Behind the Walls. In discussing the increasing need for students to distinguish themselves in order to succeed, it cites UCU as an example where high standards can cause a lot of pressure. Suddenly, the mental health of UCU students had been placed in a national perspective, once again emphasizing the need for it to be addressed.

Onthe 6th of September 2013, De Groene Amsterdammer published an online letter from former UCU student Auke van der Veen. In an opinionated response to Competition on Campus, he expresses his dissatisfaction with UCU due to what he describes as an unhealthy and unnatural environment.

In an interview with the Boomerang, Auke says he believes that the original article did not focus enough on the negative aspects of UCU. When asked what he hopes to achieve with his article, Auke says he merely wanted to express an unconventional point of view. “I wanted to stress that there are still so many things that need to be improved.”

The article evoked emotional replies and lead to explosive discussions amongst students and staff. Some students jumped to UCU’s defence, others could relate to it. Surprisingly it was UCU’s alumni association, and not the current student body, that appeared to lead the discussion. On the UCAA facebook forum, alumna Laura Scheske comments: “The reason I found this article distasteful is the way it is written – totally one sided and very much ignorant of all the positive aspects of UC.”

Daniel Craanen, class of 2013, adds that he is disappointed in the way Auke expresses his concerns, which he describes as “vomiting all over the internet, rather than constructively challenging the educational system at UCU.” Alumna Hinde Haest even wrote a letter in response which De Groene Amsterdammer published online on the 12th of September.

Eventually, the heavily critical discussion about Auke van der Veen’s article turned out to be fruitful. “Granted, the article is rather one-sided and a tad unreasonable in places, but there are plenty of things in there that are worth taking seriously,” says Joël Zwaan, who graduated in spring 2013. Students, alumni and tutors started exchanging ideas on what could be improved. Inspired by the wealth of contributions, the UCSA board, ASC and Boomerang met to formulate a plan of action and decided to organize a conference open to all students: Let’s Talk.

Let’s Talk

On the 19th of September, 48 students gathered in Locke to discuss topics such as social and academic pressure, support systems, financial worries and pressure from outside. “I think it’s very good to be able to reflect on our experiences and re-evaluate the overly-positive narrative we tend to construct,” comments one participant. Those present also came up with possible solutions to the problems they identified. “It was better than I expected,” says another attendee. “It was constructive. The atmosphere was very intimate, and it was cleansing being able to share and reflect.”

The suggested solutions range from adjusting Introweek, to represent both the academic and social life at UCU in a better way, to implementing a buddy system. Most ideas come down to the need to promote openness and awareness within the student body and to support each other. Students agree that not much can be done about the academic and financial structure already in place, but that we can change the way we deal with it. “Ultimately, we have the responsibility to accommodate for our own needs,” comments another participant. “We need to nourish a communal culture where we can be open about positive and negative experiences, based on our community and not on competition.”


Moving Forward

It’s been half a year since the Boomerang started the discussion. Now that a report has been written based on the contributions of the students that attended Let’s Talk, we have access to a somewhat representative and comprehensible account of how students experience mental health for the first time. With a clearer picture of the situation slowly emerging, students are beginning to share their ideas on what should happen next.

Not everyone proposes radical changes. “The college is already very involved in monitoring how we’re doing through the tutor system, personal contacts with teachers and support from ASC, UCSA and Mark Baldwin. There is not much more UCU can do to help us out,” says an anonymous third-year.

Second-year Lina Knol, who has suffered from several depressive episodes in the past, believes there are no easy solutions: “Asking students to be more proactive about their mental health is based on the wrong assumption that mental health problems are easily dealt with by the ones who suffer from them; you can’t be proactive about a sickness that tells you to not talk about anything and stay in bed.”

Others believe that the current situation leaves room for improvements. Proposed changes are talks given by older students and alumni in which they share their experiences, or more involved and supportive Introweek-parents. Ella van der Pol, second-year, suggests that a buddy system might lower the threshold for students who are looking for support. A former student who was forced to leave UCU due to mental health problems last year adds: “At that time I really felt like I was the only one who was going through this, so being able to talk to someone your own age would definitely help.”

And what about College Hall? Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin tells us that he is interested in the outcomes of Let’s Talk. “I think it’s potentially very productive when students organize discussions on important topics.” When asked if UCU should make any changes to the existing structure, Baldwin replies: “In the short term, this depends somewhat on the recommendations which come from the Let’s Talk conference. As an organization we are in almost constant review of how we function and what we do.”

 As far as the UCSA is concerned: after being asked about the long term goals that emerged from Let’s Talk, chair Sil Boedi Scholte promised the General Assembly that the board would do its best, where appropriate in collaboration with ASC. Although they have not come forward with concrete ideas yet, the UCSA is planning on discussing the report that emerges from Let’s Talk with College Hall and hopes to formulate a strategy from there.

For now it is still unclear whether any changes will be student-initiated or implemented by the management and what these might entail, but one thing is certain: by organizing and participating in Let’s Talk, the student body is showing that it is more than willing to take the lead and advance the discussion. As one participant said: “We are constantly shaping our own environment; campus is what we make of it. If we want to bring about a change in attitude or set up a support system, we have the potential to make that happen.” As long as we keep being critical, it seems as if change, in any form or shape, could be just around the corner. The Boomerang will keep you posted.


2 thoughts on “In the Wake of ‘Behind the Walls’

  1. I was a tutor/lecturer at UCU from 1998-2010 and am currently departmental tutor / lecturer at UCL Economics. I read the article in March with great interest. It started off with the sentence “No data is available on mental health among UCU students, making it difficult to claim how we compare to students elsewhere.”

    And I think exactly here is a really serious and underestimated problem. First of all there is no doubt that when you put 600+ students together in a college or a department that there are going to be students suffering from mental health issues. I would be surprised if at UCU you would have significantly less or more than the typical 10%-15% rates of students with mental health issues. In a place like UCU, or my current department, this means we are talking about typically around 75 to 100 students. (For comparison see the link of the Penn-State report I included below). From my own experience I would estimate that about half of these disclose this information to the academic staff (i.e. tutors etc).

    I think the occurrence of mental health problems among students, especially in a residential setting, is something that needs to be taken very seriously. But I also believe that it is absolutely necessary, before reporting on it as a problem that is in some way specific to UCU or that may be correlated with some UCU specific characteristics, to establish whether the UCU student community differs significantly from the typical college student communities.

    As a result I was a little surprised that in this “In the wake of …” article I still do not read anything to this crucial question. Clarity is part & parcel of an “open” way of dealing with this issue, clarity also allows students, including those who suffer from mental health problems, to assess to which extent their environment contributes to these issues. Assumptions and anecdotes may lead to negative outcomes for all involved … and harm the ones that deserve the care.

  2. During my expulsion date with the dean last June he reaffirmed what I had asked him a year earlier, namely that people leaving UCU due to depression was very rare. It is a claim I find hard to believe in the light of these articles (with which I have no involvement) and seeing some other students struggle and eventually give up.

    “At that time I really felt like I was the only one who was going through this,” is exactly what the dean was implying, either he is deluded or he sees this as a public relations problem.

    In any case there are three things I would recommend:

    First, is getting an on campus psychologist, someone students can talk to directly and who understands the UCU environment. It would really speed up and simplify the process of getting help.

    Second, is to create a student run support network, something like ‘madness co’ to have monthly meetings in which to discuss issues, organise support groups, and assist in dealing with stress, isolation, and so forth.

    Third, is to make this discussion loud enough that affected students will know they are not alone, to fight the stigma and confusion over mental health, and force the dean and other rosy-eyed detractors out of their denial.

    I think you guys are making good progress, albeit too late for some of us.

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