The world has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the adaptation to online education, mental issues became increasingly prominent. Despite the additional initiatives developed to support students, many have expressed their dissatisfaction. Through conversations with students, members of mental health initiatives, the chair of the FSR-FMG, and the head of the student counsellors and psychologists, we aimed to obtain a clearer picture of the mental health situation at UvA.
A Mental Health Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a tremendous amount of change in very little time. With lockdowns and restrictions, students constantly faced a series of new struggles: Zoom fatigue, technical problems during exams, financial issues, absence of social activity, loneliness, or even the uncertainty of their future job prospects, to name a few. Kim van Gennip, the head of student counsellors and psychologists, revealed that there has been a major increase in the number of students applying for support since September 2020. The main issues reported are problems concerning concentration, a lack of motivation, and feelings of anxiety and loneliness.
Mara, a first-year sociology student, feels like “one of many students who cannot say that they are happy and have not been for over a year now”. She revealed her mental health has deteriorated, describing feelings of loneliness, lack of motivation, and a struggle to make new friends. Speaking on behalf of the FSR-FMG, Pedro Gonzalez cited isolationism as a detrimental aspect of the “acute mental health burden that is being placed on students right now”.
A year after the beginning of this nightmare, many students became more vocal about their struggles, but the mental health crisis students face is far from being resolved despite the support and resources available.
The UvA has always had a mental health support system available to its students. Since the pandemic started and more students sought support from the student psychologists, many initiatives have been added on the mental health page of the university, and events centred around mental wellbeing, such as the UvA Health Week, were organized.
Two main issues emerged from their complaints: the long waiting periods to get in touch with the UvA psychologists, and the fact that the help provided by UvA psychologists was limited to academic issues.
However, some students felt like their struggles were completely left out of the conversation and took their dissatisfaction over to social media. Two main issues emerged from their complaints: the long waiting periods to get in touch with the UvA psychologists, and the fact that the help provided by UvA psychologists was limited to academic issues, limiting the communication on the tolls of the pandemic on mental health. In the words of a fellow student on Instagram: “Posting infographics about signs of stress do nothing except tell us what we already know”.
If you are a student at UvA you probably have received more than one email asking you about coping with online learning. However, that discussion was geared more towards improving academic experiences rather than mental health. The faculty needs to understand that the disconnect students suffer the most from isn’t related to the internet service provider. Still, through pages like @uvahappenings, @uvabios, @020.nl on Instagram, students have been able to voice their problems and think constructively towards improving the mental health efforts. This culminated with the establishment of a new student-run page, @uvawellbeing.
The issues with the mental health services are not a symptom of a lack of care or dedication from those within the system, but instead, could possibly be attributed to the lack of funding on a national level.
The issues with the mental health services are not a symptom of a lack of care or dedication from those within the system, but instead, could possibly be attributed to the lack of funding on a national level. Zep van de Visse, from @uvawellbeing, puts it bluntly: “Compared to other universities in the world, [the UvA] really doesn’t get too much funding […] this is not only a UvA problem; this is a national problem. The entire mental health system has been used as a political bargaining chip for years and now it’s underfunded”.
Seung Ju Kim, the creator of the podcast Voiced Vulnerabilities, told us her experience with mental health coming to the Netherlands: “I knew that our university wasn’t that open about [mental health]. […] If I’m being honest, it’s because Amsterdam has a very success-oriented kind of mindset. […] you don’t feel like you can be honest with your mental health”. This taboo and stigmatization is the reason she started her podcast in the first place, to give students a place where they could talk about their mental health with their peers.
With the aftermath of the pandemic and the pre-existing stigma surrounding mental wellbeing, it comes as no surprise that the mental health of many students’ worsened. Students also feel that physical distance is making it harder to keep in touch with those who need help.
Some changes were in order, and student associations and volunteer-run online pages collected the most common problems students were facing and organized them into policy proposals. Zep van de Visse, who has brought up these issues in front of the board of directors said this about the meeting: “They implemented the first points within 40 minutes. They were really fast. And now they are […] trying to implement ideas [that] students send to us”.
The effort was not one-sided as the UvA psychologists are working on reducing the waiting time for students, expanding group session capacities, and promoting the initiatives of other students, such as Seung Ju’s podcast. The faculty has opened up this discussion, with the dean committing to addressing mental health issues. Pedro Gonzales tells us: “In a recent conversation we had [with the dean], she inquired about involving student associations to host events and get students to interact with one another”. The FSR-FMG student association also works towards centralizing all information on student wellbeing and fighting the stigmatization of mental health issues, an enterprise endorsed by the dean.
New initiatives that started from social media as student-run pages have been translated into mental health policies.
The payoff of this collaborative thinking is already visible. New initiatives that started from social media as student-run pages have been translated into mental health policies. The university’s mental health page now has links to suicide helplines and the UvA psychologists guide students that need additional help navigating the Dutch healthcare system. The communication from the faculty to students is now directly addressing these issues and the discussion on mental health has left Instagram and is held at the decisional table instead.
A Brighter Future Through Better Communication?
A Mental health support system for a community as large as the UvA is bound to have its flaws. While a lot of effort has been put into a variety of initiatives to aid the student body, not all were tailored to easily reach many of the students in need of help.
The way forward appears to be through transparent and constant communication. As a student body, we must ensure that our opinions are heard and that changes are made according to an accurate reflection of the needs of the students. It is important that our input remains valued, but also that we are aware of how and when that will be translated into changes. Our voice matters.
Cover: Tim Mossholder
Edited by: Sajal Bhateja