Two experts on study stress

Are current students snowflakes?

Students are massively suffering from the extreme pressure to perform. But do they actually have more mental issues than students did a decade ago? Or are students these days just snowflakes?
By Thereza Langeler / Design by René Lapoutre / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Worryingly large numbers of students are at the end of their rope. Ninety percent of them abuse alcohol, two thirds of them are almost always stressed, and one in five has considered suicide.

Healthcare providers geared towards students have seen their waiting lists get increasingly fuller. Student advocates are calling on the university and the government to do something about the immense work and performance pressure.

The Dutch media have been reporting non-stop on the alarming issue. But the same media has also been publishing a different voice.

Dissenting opinion

Opinion-makers over thirty often argue that the current generation of students is just a bunch of entitled snowflakes. They say that this generation was given everything they ever wanted as kids because they were their parents’ little princes and princesses, and that they weren’t raised to be able to cope with having to work hard like earlier Dutch generations. In short, that all their complaining about pressure is nonsense.

So who is right? The student psychologists and advocates, or the older opinion-makers? Maybe they’re both right, or maybe they’re both exaggerating and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

UKrant talked to two experts who explore what exactly is going on with the current generation of students. Both say it’s important to look beyond the alarming newspaper headlines and personal opinions. At the same time, they don’t agree on anything.

Toske Andreoli (28) – philosopher and publicist, researched dysfunction among students at the RUG

 ‘Students are always being told that if they can’t handle things it’s their fault.’

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Toske Andreoli

‘Just for kicks, search for “psychological problems” on university websites. You’ll find they offer all kinds of solutions, like mindfulness or time management courses, how to feel better about yourself, how to deal with failure, how to have more confidence, etc. There was this post on MyUniversity the other day: “Experiencing stress? Get help!” It’s the same message over and over again: that it’s the individual’s responsibility to fix the problem.

That bothers me. Everywhere I go I see people my age struggling with these huge expectations. It’s current policy to view these struggles as an individual, personal problem, but I don’t think that’s warranted. It’s not like there are suddenly more individuals facing personal problems.

It’s current policy to view these struggles as an individual, personal problem, but I don’t think that’s warranted

My Master’s research is based on the idea that psychological issues don’t exist in a vacuum: they are a product of their environment. And so I studied the environment of students: the university. What does this environment look like, exactly?

First of all, it’s anonymous and permissive. There is no mutual engagement, no rhythm, no discipline. There are demands, of course, but they’re strictly focused on results. They don’t help people with their actual studies. Say you keep missing a class over and over again. You get written up, and because you didn’t meet the attendance requirements, you fail the course. But no one ever contacts students to ask why they haven’t shown up for class.

Everyone has to “excel”, and anyone who’s happy with less isn’t working hard enough

At the same time, perfectionism and ambition are being encouraged. This is pervasive in all of society. Everyone has to “excel”, and anyone who’s happy with less isn’t working hard enough.

You’re guilty of promoting this as well, by the way. Last year you had a series on student entrepreneurs. Those stories had headlines like “Just like Bill Gates” or “Just like Steve Jobs”. That’s what students apparently have to live up to today.

It’s that combination of permissiveness and the emphasis on excellence that trips students up. The students in my environment usually responded to this in one of two ways: they became extremely ambitious, took on extra jobs, joined associations, took extra courses, did internships abroad, what have you – until they broke. Or they became completely paralysed with the fear of failure, felt guilty about not getting anything done, and became withdrawn.

It’s that combination of permissiveness and the emphasis on excellence that trips up students

Is this an entirely new phenomenon? I think people in their twenties have always struggled. But lecturers used to know their students by name, and students had more time and space to do things.

I started studying in 2008 and I witnessed the beginning of all these new, incoming regulations. First the introduction of institutional tuition fees, which made doing a second study programme really expensive. That raised quite a few eyebrows. Then there were the performance agreements and the binding study advice. And then Halbe Zijlstra came up with that fine for long-term students. That one really shocked me.

When did “long-term student” become such a dirty word? And why?

I was one of those long-term students. I started in psychology and I got good grades, but after a year I realised that it wasn’t for me and that I wanted to do something else. I never even considered that might be some kind of failure or something to feel guilty about. But then they started talking about that fine. When did “long-term student” become such a dirty word? And why?

It’s like people feel that students today are a drain on societal resources or something. The government is paying for them, but they’re not contributing anything to society and so they have to finish their studies as quickly as possible so they can get a job. I feel this compromises the social role of the university, and that’s something universities should protest. University managers are all too quick to blame politicians, as though that puts an end to the discussion.

They should fight for their students! Show those politicians who’s boss! Tell them we need more teaching staff, more contact hours, and better social control. Those things work so much better than a bsa, or lessons in how to deal with the fear of failure.

But these awareness campaigns for psychological issues aren’t as innocuous as people might think

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad student psychologists exist and that people know how to find their way to them. But these awareness campaigns for psychological issues aren’t as innocuous as people might think. They encourage people to seek treatment when they’re not constantly productive, or happy, or energetic.

This sends the message to students that if they can’t handle things it’s their fault. I think that’s appalling. Any other professional group would strike if they were treated like that.’

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Peter van der Velden

‘If you want people to notice something – doesn’t matter what – of course you’ll say that ‘things are on the rise’, or ‘it’s worse than we thought’. That will automatically wake up the media. No outlet is going to write about things that are described as being stable.

It’s a well-known pattern and it’s currently happening with students and psychological issues. Student unions, parties, student psychologists and GPs, they all keep saying that student mental health is declining, and the media are lapping it up. The moment journalists hear the words ‘increase’ or ‘worse’, it’s like they lose all sense of reality.

Don’t get me wrong: students are definitely suffering from psychological issues. Some of them are very serious. Every population group has them. It would be weirder if students didn’t have any issues. But I can find no evidence that the problems are increasing like everyone is saying.

Students don’t suffer from more issues than their peers who aren’t in school

There is this large study from 2016, a collection of epidemiological studies from all over the world. It really focuses on psychological disorders, fear, depression, etc. Students weren’t shown to suffer from more issues than their peers who weren’t in school.

I myself analysed the data from a large Dutch panel, the LISS panel (ed.: Long-Term Internet Social Sciences Studies). This panel consists of 7,500 people who serve as a sample of the world’s population. We looked at the health information of people between 19 and 24 at three different intervals: in 2007, 2012, and 2017. We looked at whether they were experiencing psychological problems, whether they were seeing a therapist, etc.

We saw no significant changes in those ten years

We saw no significant changes in those ten years. In 2007, approximately 30 percent of students reported having psychological problems, and the same number persisted through 2012 and 2017. Approximately 35 percent of students felt fatigued in 2007; that number was the same in 2012 and 2017. People seeking treatment: 11 percent in 2007, 11 percent in 2012, and 11 percent in 2017.

I won’t deny that student psychologists are treating more people. But so many public campaigns are aimed at getting people with issues into therapy.

If the police say they are receiving more reports of crime, that doesn’t automatically mean crime is actually on the rise

There’s currently one for depression, I think: ‘talk about it’. With campaigns like that, it’s only natural that more people are visiting the student psychologist. If the police say they are receiving more reports of crime, that doesn’t automatically mean crime is actually on the rise, just that more people are reporting it.

Whether students are experiencing more pressure than earlier generations is a different matter altogether. Their student financing is less, they have to graduate faster, and their circumstances are different than they were ten years ago. But does that automatically translate to more people suffering from serious psychological issues?

Being tired from working too hard and becoming depressed because you’re working too hard are two different things. Depression is an insidious disease. Working hard, or working too hard, is not the same as psychological suffering.

Maybe the pressure on earlier generations was extremely low

Maybe the pressure on students is much higher than it was before. Does that automatically mean it’s a problem? Maybe the pressure on earlier generations was extremely low. Whenever my students complained about all the work they had I would ask them how many hours they truly spent studying each week. I must have asked a few hundred students the same question over the years, and none of them ever said they worked more than forty hours a week.

Not to mention the assumption that students should be engaging in all kinds of extracurricular activities to pad their CV, because employers look for that. But do they? Everybody says this, but is it even true?

If I read a resume and it says that someone’s travelled the world and has been on various committees but their grades aren’t very good, I won’t be impressed. It’s this modern madness: we think we have to do all these things, do more, do better. Maybe we’re all just psyching each other up.

That’s something I would like the media to report on. They should ask what’s really happening, and whether it’s a result of studying or something else. And is it really up to the universities to offer a solution?


The title of this article has been changed. It first read ‘Are today’s students pansies?’  A reader alerted us that ‘pansy’ was historically used as a slur against homosexuals. We certainly did not intend to use a word that is offensive or harmful.


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