A national campaign to promote student mental health has been launched following concerns that the pressure on young people at university is too high.
Students are reporting anxiety, depression and exhaustion as they try to cram in studies, part-time jobs and higher expectations.
The campaign will conduct the first detailed national survey of student mental health to help pinpoint areas where action is needed.
In the most recent University of Lausanne annual “how are you?” wellbeing survey of first-year students, over half of respondents reported stress due to studies and workload, while just under half said they were worried, anxious, tired or demotivated, said Swiss public television RTSexternal link.
There are also reports that more students are consulting university counselling services: there was a jump of 50% in consultations in the period 2018-2019 at the University of Fribourg, and a rise of just over 20% external linkin 2018 compared with 2017 at Zurich’s two universities. The universities of Basel and St Gallen have also reported a riseexternal link in use of their services.
For Markus Diem, head of the Basel University Student Advice Centre, the figures may well just be the tip of the iceberg as not all students affected go to university counselling, as he told SonntagsBlick last summerexternal link. Social media, pressure to be the best and pushing away negative feelings were some of the reasons for increased feelings of anxiety and depression.
Increased awareness of mental health issues is also a factor in why there are more consultations. “Young people are coming more readily because this is the generation that is used to the school psychologist,” Rita Raemy, a psychologist at the University of Fribourg, told RTSexternal link.
Students themselves are also sounding the alarm. In autumn 2019, the Swiss Student Unionexternal link, the Swiss Medical Students’ Associationexternal link and Mind-Mapexternal link, a University of Basel student mental health association, launched the Student Minds Projectexternal link, a national campaign to promote student mental health. In October 2020* it will conduct a national survey on student mental health at all Swiss universities.
The project was inspired by a 2018 Federal Statistical Office study, in which students reported more health problems than the rest of the population, with nearly 20% saying they had chronic health issues (of which 26% were mental health issues). The stats office pointed to financial stresses – many students work a part-time job while studying – as a factor in student wellbeing.
Student Minds spokeswoman Bea Albermann, from the Swiss Medical Students’ Associationexternal link, says that there is currently no comprehensive data on student mental health across Switzerland, so it’s difficult to back the claims of a rise in stress statistically.
The campaign’s survey should be able to address this gap. It will also look at the support services offered at these institutions.
Albermann, a fifth-year medical student, agrees that there is an increased awareness of mental health issues among students. But she also points to the special environment at university, which puts students at risk of stress.
“Students are in a major typical transition phase: things like moving out, managing your own household, financing, becoming independent from their parents,” she told swissinfo.ch. “But then you also have this high pressure and performance requirement, you have social, emotional and academic challenges. So universities are quite a special setting which makes students a risk factor group.”
Due to the lack of data, it’s not yet possible to see how Switzerland compares with other countries abroad, such as the United Kingdom, where a recent spate of student suicides have brought the issue of student mental health into the spotlightexternal link.
But Swiss universities have become more open to discussing student mental health over the past five years, Albermann noted. The upcoming survey should help stimulate public debate further, as well as highlight where action should be taken, like having more preventive measures.
Areas of improvement
According to the Student Minds spokeswoman, current areas of improvement include “long waiting times to get access to a psychologist and specific counselling, or other entry barriers to getting counselling, for example in some universities students will be charged for it, so there are financial issues”. Visibility of services is also a problem, as many students say they don’t know where to get help, she added. Here, Albermann believes that highlighting what’s on offer in lectures would help.
“We can’t say that every university needs a mental health awareness week, that every student needs a first semester stress management course and this would be the magic solution, because mental health is so individual and some people have totally different needs to others,” she said. “But we can contribute to increasing awareness and find out where we can prioritise and give specific support on an individual level.”
*An earlier version of this article stated the survey would start April 2020, this has now been amended to October 2020, based on an update from the organisations involved.