With an increasing number of students with mental health problems at universities, it has never been more necessary to talk about it within academia. Educational institutions around the world must be concerned (far beyond the quality of education) in meeting this growing demand for support for the health and well-being of their student body and, for that, it is necessary to recognize the factors that are contributing for the decline of mental health within the gym.
To better understand this issue, we spoke with Amanda Dantas Brandão, a psychologist graduated from the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) and resident in Public Health from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Check it out below!
Should universities be concerned with students’ mental health?
Yes, definitely. It is great to note that this subject has gained more and more prominence and relevance in society. Not that mental health problems in the university context are new, but the fact that we are starting to talk about it already signals the recognition of the problem, which is the first step in finding ways to deal with it.
Universities, being institutions that have the purpose of training people, need to be alert to accept issues related to mental health and also recognize their own responsibility as a potentially sickening environment, seeking to analyze aspects of the institution that may be causing harm to mental health. teachers and students and thus be able to intervene more effectively.
How does university life contribute to mental health problems?
In a country like ours, where many people do not have access to higher education, entering a university brings many joys, but it also carries a weight (and a great responsibility).
In the social imaginary, the “diploma” is associated with the achievement of a new status in society, with the act of becoming someone considered more valued, more important. To take this new step, you enter an environment that is sometimes rigorous, demanding, and that has a symbolic power to determine whether you have more or less value based on how well you can adapt to certain norms of language, writing, posture, performance in tests and works, etc.
Often, the difficulties that students have in adapting to this environment are becoming a constant and sometimes silent suffering that can culminate in mental disorders.
3. Is there still a stigma around mental health?
Yes. I believe it is related to the way we deal with knowledge, to the way that Western civilization has learned to deal with the body and with science.
The dualistic view between mind-body and the valorization of Reason as the main attribute of Man were the foundations of the scientific and cultural constitution of our society, which brought numerous advances but also quite problematic issues, such as the stigma in relation to what is subjective, to what escapes rationality, to what cannot be measured.
Our scientific method demands an observer and an object, which is more feasible in the investigation of the body, but often becomes an impasse in the investigation of the psychological. We try to measure thinking, emotions and conscience in different ways, but the abstract character of these elements makes it difficult to fit in the traditional scientific method, which has biological knowledge as a reference. Thus, one can better understand the evils that affect the body and “bodily” health, but there is a difficulty in understanding the psychological issues within this biomedical paradigm, its causes, treatment, etc.
In Psychology, we have several approaches based on studies that guide us to deal with these issues. But, due to the impossibility of “proving” these theories through the scientific method due to the very nature of its object, space is opened for other understandings, such as moral or religious. It is common to associate depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder with weakness or “lack of God”. This ends up reinforcing prejudices and making it difficult for the individual to seek help, for fear of being judged.
4. What are the main factors that contribute to the decline in mental health within academia?
College students usually deal with a lot of pressure. Regardless of where they came from, what type of school they studied, whether they have support to support themselves or not, everyone needs to deal with the demand for studies, tests and jobs.
Assessment methods are unlikely to consider whether students have had difficulty understanding the subject. Teachers either, because they also have to deal with the pressure that is exerted on them, such as the requirement for a minimum number of publications, delivery of notes, etc.
There is a lot of rigor and little understanding. In addition to the demand for activities, which can be quite high, there is also the issue of quality. Those who fail to “get the hang of” academic writing, pass the calculation test, or even the student who gets great grades and suffers from having to maintain the intelligence status he has acquired, both may end up being swallowed up by pressure, neglecting others aspects of life, such as health care and leisure and rest time, which brings several health damage in general.
The performance of the student and his grades can acquire an identification value for the individual. In this way, it is as if these variables alone affirm who he is as a person. Hence the constant fear of failure, of not being able to graduate, which has negative impacts on self-esteem, feelings of self-depreciation, guilt, anxiety, panic, etc.
We should also not forget that, being a hierarchical environment, moral harassment is often present at the university, which is completely harmful to the mental health of those who suffer from it. And it is extremely difficult to deal with on an individual level.
Harassment imposes fear, and often the student (or even the teacher or employee) finds himself unable to even see certain situations as harassment, which causes the victim to remain in this situation for a long time, generating enormous suffering that it can turn into anxiety and panic attacks, somatization (acquiring psychic influences), depression and even suicide.
5. Are universities doing enough to support students with mental health problems? Have you noticed any advances in this direction or much still needs to be improved?
I have already noticed some advances, such as campaigns in the Yellow September, or the promotion of mental health at the university, but it is still not enough. Mainly because for there to be changes in this sense, universities need to rethink the forms of assessment and the relationship between professors and students, that is, it is necessary to deal with things that are very old and rooted.
Of course, some benefit from this education system, and resistance to change is also recurrent. But that is not why we should give up. The student body has strength and ways to raise its guidelines, and the review of these forms of academic relationship has been one of them.
The health services of universities also need to be ready to welcome these students, offering appropriate treatment, but they can also intervene in the institution itself, observing sickening aspects and looking for ways to improve them, promoting actions that combat moral harassment, for example, and pay attention to the importance of mental health for everyone involved in the institution.
6. How far can the university interfere in this matter without going beyond the student’s privacy?
I believe that the university can take measures to promote mental health in the environment that does not need interference in the privacy of students, such as reevaluating aspects of the institution, creating listening channels, fighting moral harassment, etc. However, in some cases, if the university (in the figure of a professor or employee), becomes aware of someone who is suffering, it is important to listen to this person to take appropriate measures, such as referring to psychological or psychiatric care. There is no need to expose the student.
So, answering the initial question of that text: Yes! The university is also responsible for students’ mental health.
A university that takes care of students’ mental health is likely to have better academic results and a generally happier student body.
Obviously, it is up to students to seek help for problems that affect their own mental health, but we believe that universities should help them by providing this help and raising awareness about it.
It is also true that, within an academic environment, this type of problem affects not only students, but also other members of the university community, such as teachers and administrative staff. And a university that is entirely responsible for the issue of mental health must also be aware of these groups.
Especially because, a teacher with mental health problems, for example, may show a considerable drop in performance from a professional point of view and this can directly (and negatively) impact the students’ learning process, and, consequently, the university’s performance in general, in a kind of “domino effect”.
In other words, the university must work as a single unit in order to reduce the factors that contribute to the precarious mental health of its entire community and, thus, create an enabling environment to improve the university experience for all involved.