Continuing the Conversation: Wellbeing at UCU

By Juste Jaseviciute, Fleur Zantvoort & Clemens Schally 

The issue of wellbeing at UCU has been repeatedly brought into the limelight in the past years. It has been the subject of heated debates and controversy, and has mobilised many voices for change. Driven by the idea that you cannot improve what you do not understand, UCU’s Wellbeing Team, in cooperation with professors, senior tutors, the Student Life Officer and the Dean, conducted a survey on the issue last semester. This article discloses some of the preliminary results from this survey, and combines insights from its contributors, students and the UCSA board to reflect on the state of wellbeing at UCU. Most importantly, it questions the way that we conceive and talk about wellbeing, and explores the roads open to us to build a stronger and healthier community.

But what exactly do we mean by “wellbeing”? The definition maintained by the Wellbeing Team encompasses the topics of social life, stress, awareness, mental health and sexual safety, which are addressed in their survey. The idea of conducting the survey arose shortly after the establishment of the Wellbeing Team following the Wellbeing Focus Month in 2015. It was eventually filled out by a staggering 338 students. Although the survey results are not necessarily conclusive and need to be interpreted with caution, they provide the first steps towards building a healthier community.

Satisfaction with one’s social life

Transition from home to UCU means significant lifestyle changes. In an environment where our social and academic lives are inextricably intertwined, we all have to learn to navigate a constant balancing act. While 60% of students indicated to be ‘satisfied’ or ‘completely satisfied’ with their social lives, 40% evaluated their social life as somewhat less positive, with 20% feeling ‘neutral’ and 20% being ‘unsatisfied’. One may argue that a cohabitative environment that encourages social comparison can be expected to breed a relatively high level of dissatisfaction – despite ample opportunities to engage in social activities. On the other hand, it is important to remember that we all understand “satisfaction” differently, and that it is not clear how these statistics compare to other universities. In order to fully grasp the implications of these findings, it is necessary to further explore the reasons that underpin them.

Stress

Stress is another issue that one cannot ignore when talking about wellbeing. The figures indicate that 82% of students felt ‘sometimes’ to ‘always’ anxious and/or worried. 28% of the respondents felt like they were unable to manage their academic tasks successfully throughout the semester, and only 8% of students said they were managing very well. However, when interpreting these results two things need to be taken into account. First of all, the survey was conducted two weeks before the finals period which undoubtedly caused extreme stress levels – although it is important to note that during our time here, we will encounter at least 12 of such exam periods. Besides, interpretation is further complicated as responses may be influenced by other factors, such as what semester you are in or what your energy levels are that day.

Another difficulty in interpreting the data lies in the way stress is perceived and the varied ways individuals deal with it. Dr. Christel Lutz, assistant professor of psychology, admits that UCU might in some ways be more challenging than other universities, as students are constantly asked to perform at a high level. In this context, it is important to remember that experiencing stress is not necessarily a bad thing or a sign of psychological abnormality. It is also a sign that we are challenging ourselves and delivering peak performance. This is important, for as Lutz puts it:

“You need to be well to flourish, but to flourish you also need to challenge yourself.”

UCU’s Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin emphasises the importance of reconsidering the way in which we perceive and talk about symptoms like stress. He speaks of the importance of “shifting the kind of vocabulary that we use amongst ourselves”. It is necessary to distinguish between on the one hand normal levels of stress and the ups and downs that we all experience, and on the other hand cases in which our health and wellbeing are at risk.

Towards a positive psychology

That said, it may at the same time be desirable to shift away from a focus on the disease model that is dominant in psychology and has come to permeate our discourses, and towards a more positive psychology. Concretely, this means that enhancing mental health resources on campus should not only mean improving student counseling, but also focussing on, for instance, sports facilities. This was echoed by Dr. Christel Lutz and one of the students interviewed for this article. When asked whether sports contributes to his/her overall wellbeing, the student replied:

“[Sports] is like a stress relief. When I’m inside all day trying to study I can just go outside and kick a ball around. And I think that really helps.”      

Accessing resources

One concerning result of the study is that almost half of the students who filled in the survey did not know where to find resources about mental wellbeing. Moreover, 64% did not know where to find help in case of sexual assaults, domestic violence or stalking. When asked where students would go to if in need for mental health support, ‘friends’ was the number one response. Although this is not necessarily problematic, it is of immediate importance that access to mental care services on campus is improved. This is currently one of the main objectives of the Wellbeing Team, the UCSA Board and academic staff. The UCSA Board aims to improve students’ knowledge of what wellbeing services are available on the soon-to-be-released website, while the Wellbeing Team is busy organizing events on campus, such as the Wellbeing Week. This year’s Wellbeing Week is called ‘Awareness’ and aims to inform students about mental health facilities on campus and how to access them. More information on the resources related to health and wellbeing can be found on the UCU website.

The way forward

Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin points out that a lot has already changed in terms of student counselling and attention to students’ mental health since he started working here in 2011. He feels like there is much greater input from both staff and the student body on the topic. There is a greater connectivity with all of the tutors and him and a shorter communication chain with management and the university counselling teams. Besides, there are more frequent meetings with the largest mental health provider in town and a university doctor. Dr. Christel Lutz confirmed this positive outlook, reflecting that there was a great “sense of togetherness” during this years’ introweek.

The Wellbeing Team’s survey gives us the tools to understand student wellbeing on campus. Once the full results will be released, they can form the basis to move away from focusing on the problems towards focusing on building a healthy and flourishing community. However, this may only be achieved if awareness regarding wellbeing is raised. And it may only be achieved if we are all in it together. Therefore, it is important that we continue the conversation, and that we do it respectfully but critically. If you have any input regarding the survey, or the topic of wellbeing on campus in general, do not hesitate to contact the Wellbeing Team and make your voice heard.

Special thanks to the Wellbeing Team, Christel Lutz, Mark Baldwin and the UCSA Board for their contributions to this article. We would also like to thank Lotte Schuengel, Sebastiaan Siegerink, Jessie Fitzgerald and Mechteld van den Hoek Ostende for conducting the interviews without which this article would not have been possible.

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