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“I thought studying would be more relaxing than working full-time, it was the other way around”

“I thought studying would be more relaxing than working full-time, it was the other way around”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Sphinx Debate Centre

Why is it that so many young people today feel stressed, anxious, depressed and burned out? Many have tried to find an answer. The panellists and the audience at the Sphinx debate about the topic, Wednesday 29 May at Lumière, took another stab at it. Their conclusion: structural changes have to be made at Maastricht University.

There is a strong culture of working (too) hard at Maastricht University, say three of the panellists, all of them students who have personal experience with mental health issues. “Overwork is validated, not respecting yourself is the norm,” says law student Giulia Frinzi.

Psychology student Nokhez Usama agrees. “There is more competition and comparison here than anywhere else I have lived. There is not enough time or space for you to be you. To find out who you are and what you want. There is also the issue of seeing a burnout as something of an achievement. If you haven’t had one before the age of 30, then what have you been doing? But it’s not normal.”

“I used to work at a bank, then made the choice to go back to university to study law,” says Saskia Stolk. “I thought studying would be more relaxing than working full-time. It was the other way around.” She thinks the university adds to this culture. “I will have an exam on Thursday afternoon and start two new courses on Monday morning. Only then am I given a list of what books to get. That gives me three days to buy the books, read parts of them and prepare for two new tutorial groups. The work is never done. There is no time to reflect. We never look back at our own achievements we just check something off the list. What we are losing is a sense of self-development.”

The women all think there’s a lack of support at the UM. “There is a six-week waiting list for a student psychologist,” says Frinzi. “That is a really long time to wait when you are not feeling well. And even then, a student psychologist can only take you so far. For help with more complex issues, you need to go to an off-campus psychologist. It’s not like in the UK, where I also studied, where they have plenty of in-house psychologists who offer free sessions.”

Petra Kai Kormendy, chaplain at Innbetween, thinks the university is changing. “But only slowly, it’s a mammoth. Now they are focusing more on prevention, on workshops and training.” She thinks more structural changes are necessary though. “Master's programmes are overloaded. Why do students have to read so much? What’s the point of reading 600 pages? Read one article and really learn from that.”

The - by now well-known - clip is shown of Simon Sinek, author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant, in which he explains the problem of millennials in the work place. According to him, one of the reasons for all the burnouts is the fact that millennials were raised with the idea that they are special. This is not the case, say the people (a mixture of students, UM staff, recent graduates and people working in health care) present tonight. A student in the audience says: “We’re told we’re acting entitled, but I feel more that we need to be special in the eyes of the people around us. We get the chance to pursue things they never got. We have the chance so we have to grab it.”

“Because you are set up to win, you are expected to win,” says Frinzi. “I feel the reason that everybody is bragging about all the things they are doing, the reason that we – myself included – tie our self-worth to our achievements, is that there is no other generation that is so aware of how exchangeable we all are.”

Public health specialist Remco van de Pas agrees. “I work a lot with master’s students and the notion that they have a lot of opportunities is a false one. On the contrary, they are dealing with a lot of insecurities. A decent job is hard to find. We need to be more honest about that.”

In other words, talk to each other. “We feel alone and anxious, but it’s not just individuals that are overwhelmed,” says Van de Pas. “Societies, the planet: we’re all overheated. We should allow ourselves to take a step back.”

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