I want to focus this column on student wellbeing. It’s a many-headed hydra, with many different factors contributing to the pressures felt by students – competition, anxiety about academic performance, worries about gaining relevant extracurricular experience that help with future career prospects, financial pressures, the immediacy and unforgiving nature of social media, loneliness... But one thing is certain - this is an issue that we’re increasingly getting signals about (as are my colleagues at other universities in the country), and we as a community need to work together to combat this problem.
At the Griffioen meeting last November we spoke with student representatives about student wellbeing, and were confronted by the wide range of issues that were raised. We are trying to address this complex issue at all levels – in the faculties, and centrally. Thankfully, a great number of dedicated VU colleagues play important roles in identifying and addressing problems – the academic staff, tutors and mentors, study advisors, student deans, student psychologists, the support staff. But there is more work to be done.
What’s important is to increase awareness of the challenges faced by the students, and to develop multiple interventions and support mechanisms. One of the concrete steps arising from the discussions during the Griffioen meeting is an initiative of the University Student Council, with the support of the Board, to organize a performance of an interactive, musical, show called Time Out! that allows the audience to enter into dialogue about the often-taboo subjects of stress, performance pressures, and burn-outs. Beyond that, there is significant research expertise at the VU on screening for, and providing internet-based and mobile-supported interventions to address, a number of mental health factors. The teams of Heleen Riper, Pim Cuijpers and other colleagues are experts in e-mental health approaches, and have been working together with our student psychologists to validate some of these methods amongst students.
Ultimately however, no matter what institutional support systems, methods and interventions we establish, the most effective approach is to look out for each other, and reach out to fellow students. Zakaria Laaraj’s initiative “StudeerSamen” that won the Student Initiative award at the New Year’s gala last month aims to do precisely that – to stimulate students to lend each other a helping hand, and by doing so, letting off some of the steam in the pressure cooker.