Wellbeing week does not solve fundamental problems

Once again, UU has organised its Wellbeing Week, an event comprising a wide range of activities, from paddle boarding to a “booty workout”. The goal of these activities was to improve students’ mental health.

The reason behind such an event is clear: things are going south for Dutch students. According to the National Student Association (ISO in the Dutch acronym), students in the Netherlands are “on the verge of collapse”. A major American study revealed one in five students is struggling with suicidal thoughts and one in four has an officially recognised psychological disorder. This group continues to grow in size each year.

There is reason enough to pay attention to this issue. That’s exactly what UU is trying to do as well. So, it’s not the fact that the university is trying to address the problem that bothers me – it is the way they are doing so.

By pretending that these problems can be solved with a hike or a plank challenge, the university makes it seem as though the problem can be engineered. As if the complaints the students have were the result of a lack of wellness activities, as if they were the student’s own fault. The maxim from which this week seems to be organised is the following: “If you do enough reflection and yoga, then stress will disappear by itself”.

This is a wrong and dangerous assumption. The stress experienced by students does not come from a lack of yoga, neither does yoga solve it, as the problem stems from much larger social structures.

In the past, a four-year delay in your studies would have still qualified you for a top job. Now, with ‘only’ two degrees, you hardly qualify for a coffee-making internship. On top of that, today’s students have zero financial security: in a world dominated by zero-hour contracts, no basic grant and a gruelling loan, taking a year longer to complete your studies is simply unaffordable. You have to study nominally, and you have to get a diploma.

By approaching mental health in this manner, as something that can be prevented if only you meditate enough, we turn a collective problem (a malfunctioning educational system) into an individual problem. And this problem is far too heavy to bear alone.

Let’s not forget that this approach brings unpleasant consequences, too. Not only does the student already feel bad because of the current system, now they will feel even worse because initiatives like the Wellbeing Week lead them to assume everything is their own fault.

Not to mention how simplistic this approach is. In addition to the activities mentioned above, UU is offering students the opportunity to talk to a student psychologist, as well as workshops on how to deal with the fear of failure and how to prevent a burnout. All things that are super important and sensible. Although these activities can help struggling individuals, I think they ignore the fundamental problem. At best, this is only damage control, as it only looks at the symptoms. They don't fix the system and, if we wait too long to do that, we might forget that things could be different, that studying could be done in a system that doesn't produce so many mental issues.

If doing yoga twice a week works for you, that's great, but it doesn't work for everyone and it's not going to solve the structural problems either. The Wellbeing Week seems to be a smokescreen put up by UU to avoid addressing the fundamental causes of students’ poor mental state. Let's talk about those issues more often, then. The booty workout can always be done afterwards.

(And if you are struggling with psychological problems, talk about it, you are not alone: the door of the student psychologist is wide open every day, this week and beyond).

Liu, CHStevens, CWong, SHMYasui, MChen, JAThe prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service useDepress Anxiety2019368– 17https://doi-org.proxy.library.uu.nl/10.1002/da.22830