One in four students suffer from symptoms of burnout, shows a study by Windesheim University of Applied Sciences published in mid-April. At the same time, the WUR board announced that it was allocating 50,000 euros to a campaign to address psychological problems among students. What makes student life stressful and what is the best way to deal with the stress?
Text Tessa Louwerens and Kenneth van Zijl Illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek
Wim Verhagen, third-year BSc student of Economics and Policy
‘I certainly experience stress. Your studies and your social life are bound up together in Wageningen: it goes on 24/7. I take part in a lot of extracurricular activities, including involvement in education. I also set up the branch of the Young Democrats, together with a few other people, and I’m now the chair. I sometimes leave the house at 9 in the morning and get back at 12 at night, and then I still have to reply to loads of Whatsapp messages. At one point the stress got too much for me. But I was ashamed of that because I thought I was overreacting. After all, everyone is busy. After hesitating for a long time I did eventually go to the student psychologist. I know perfectly well I need to do less. But being able to talk to someone about my stress is a big relief. Now I am taking a break from courses. And I don’t let my diary get so full.
Anne van der Heijden, MSc student of Management, Economics and Consumer Studies and Food Quality Management
‘I have a lifestyle that is really chill for me, but it probably wouldn’t work for everyone. I do what I want when I want: eating, exercising, studying, meeting friends. Neither of my two Master’s programmes have a lot of contact hours. I hardly every go to lectures and I only go to compulsory sessions. You can’t do that on all programmes and everyone is different in terms of what you need and what works for you. Because a lot of independent study also requires self-discipline. If you haven’t got that, this approach can actually create a lot of stress. But it works for me.’
BSc student Third-year of Nutrition and Health, name known to the editor
‘Last summer I developed serious psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. I was referred to therapists and sat in my room for months, exhausted and depressed. Now I am taking antidepressants and I’m studying again part-time so as to reintegrate gradually. That is working well. Ultimately I would like to teach at a university. Before my breakdown I was studying fulltime as well as working 20 hours a week in a laboratory. And I was also serving on a board. Anyone with any sense will say that was too much. But when you are in the thick of it, you don’t realize that. I come from a family in which working hard was the norm. I’m the first to go to university. That creates expectations too.’
Liza van Kapel, , MSc student of Earth and Environment
‘‘I’m a real deadline worker: I start late. Sometimes that causes stress but in the end I usually manage. I do a lot of other things too, not because I think it’s necessary for getting a job but because I enjoy it. Now I am writing my Master’s thesis. I’ve got an extension because I developed RSI halfway through it, which I don’t think was due to stress as such. I talked about it and my supervisor helped me adapt my plans, and I got help with the setup of my desk. That gives me some peace of mind. I think it can be quite difficult for students to know their own limits and to make them clear. There are facilities but you have to sound the alarm yourself.’
Edwin Peeters, Associate Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management
‘I notice that students have short concentration spans and are easily distracted, because they are doing a lot of things at once, including things they do on their smartphones. And students also have a lot more daytime activities alongside fulltime education. For example, sometimes they can’t attend a lecture because they have to work. I think expectations of students are high: there is pressure to finish fast but to earn money at the same time. This is not always good for their academic performance, and I get the impression it creates more stress too.’
Jesse Mesman, MSc student of Biotechnology
‘I had such a full life that I started to have symptoms of burnout. I sometimes got panicky and people saw that I was walking around stressed. Only I bottled it all up. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. At some point I went to the student psychologist and was referred to the mental health service. The assessment made there was that I was afraid of failure and always wanted to do everything perfectly. I went there eight times and it helped a lot. I also went to a perfectionism coach. I had to keep track of what had gone well and what hadn’t, and got exercises for creating a calmer state of mind. She also taught me that good can be good enough. I am going to drop a few activities and committees. Now I still cook at my student society and I play in the student orchestra. I don’t go to all the parties anymore. Better for my peace of mind.’
Anne Pluijmaekers, MSc student of Management, Economics and Consumer Studies and Biology
‘I am doing a double Master’s, but that doesn’t necessarily cause more stress. I have the same course load as someone doing one Master’s. It just takes a bit more figuring out because I take various compulsory courses, which all have to be fitted in somewhere. I try to cut the work up into small, manageable chunks so I can feel I’m making progress. I also look carefully at my priorities: I really don’t need to study until 10 o’clock every evening. People do have different expectations of me because I’m doing two Master’s programmes. On the one hand, there are assumptions that I’ll have plenty to say about both subject areas, that studying is less effort for me and that I’m at a certain level. And on the other hand, I can be cut some slack sometimes. I find it difficult to cope with these expectations: that is actually what stresses me out more.’