The Suffering Generation: The University Student Mental Health Crisis
- Kamran Mofid
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'Nine in 10 first year students say they find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life.'
As studies after studies are demonstrating, the number of students on university and college campuses that are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and psychosis all across the world is rising. This intensification of students’ psychological needs has become a mental health crisis. The age at which many mental disorders manifest themselves is between 18 and 24, which coincides directly with the average age of student enrolment in higher education. Moreover, it is also noted that psychological disorders that students are being treated for while studying in higher education are increasing in severity. Adolescent suicide rates have tripled over the past 60 years, making suicide the second leading cause of death for that age group.
Furthermore, as noted in the Guardian today (31 March 2014) “They tell you that university will be the best days of your life. What they don't tell you is that many students suffer from mental health issues.
Leaving home and starting university can make existing problems worse or trigger new issues, from depression and anxiety to eating disorders.
Mental health is the side of university life that stays behind closed doors. It's increasingly common though. Last year it was announced that the number of university students seeking counselling rose by 33%. In a report by the National Union of Students 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.”
Given this tragedy, I am most humbled that in January 2011 I wrote an article addressing exactly the same issue as I have noted above:
Why Happiness Should be Taught at Our Universities?
There I had noted that:
‘…I believe that our education in universities is fundamentally ill-balanced. Of course exams matter greatly - they are the passport to an individual's future work and career. A university which fails to let every student achieve the best grades and results of which their students are capable of is failing to do its job properly. But education is far more than this. It is far more than grades and percentages here and there.
As a university lecturer with many years of experience, I have seen far too many tortured and unhappy students who have achieved very high grades. If they can achieve these grades while leading balanced lives, taking part in a wide variety of activities which will develop different facets of their character, and if they blossom as happy and contented human beings, then all is well and good. But as any teacher will know, this isn't always the case with high achievers. Neither is it with high achievers in life. These driven people see their lives flash by in fast living and fast cars, and most fail to realise they are missing the point of life. Is it more important to be highly “successful”, or to be a respected colleague and a valued friend, and a loving parent whose children grow up in a secure environment in which they know they are valued and treasured? I have had to learn the hard way myself, the answers are obvious. Hence the need to teach happiness while at schools and universities.
Universities should seriously consider developing courses and modules which are about emotional learning and emotional intelligence, which by definition are far more reflective activity than traditional classes. Students should learn about how to form healthy and sustaining relationships. They should gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests. The negative emotions which are an inevitable part of life should be explored: students should be able to learn more about what it is that causes them pain and unhappiness, how they might be able to avoid or minimise these emotions and how to deal with them when they do occur. So the essence is that students learn more about themselves, which will be information that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.
Today the university students lead a very destructively competitive life, which is all about the highest grades, finding the best jobs, the one that gives them more, the best position, highest bonuses, etc. It is all about the best, the most, the highest, and all measured in monetary terms. This is for all practical reasons a rat race. Here we can, if we ever needed to, see why we need courses in happiness and well-being, inner peace and contentment. A pertinent question at this time is: “How can we dampen the impact of the rat race?”. We have to start from human nature as it is, but we can also affect values and behaviour through the signals our institutions send out. An explicit focus on happiness would change attitudes to many aspects of policy, including in education and training, regional policy and performance-related pay, the dreaded and destructive bonus-inspired culture that has made money the main measurement of success and happiness.
The goal should be to help our students lead happier lives, not in the sense of experiencing pleasure - of moving from one immediate gratification to the next - but in the sense of leading a meaningful and fulfilling life, of flourishing emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
Education can be informative or transformative. Information may “educate” the students, but to transform, in contrast, is all about changing the way students perceive the world and interpret the “information” that they receive in their lectures. Today our universities by-and-large are all about the information and not much about transformation. This must change. To help students lead fulfilling lives, information is necessary, but not sufficient.
These courses should remind the students that “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak”. They should be encouraged to discover the beauty and the wisdom of happiness, self-esteem, empathy, sympathy, friendship, humility, love, kindness, generosity, tolerance, service, altruism, creativity, nature, music, literature, poetry, spirituality, and humor.
What is the purpose of university if not to prepare its graduates for a life beyond? It is not only at university that personal difficulties arise. Most of us have had to cope in our lives with professional rejections, breakdowns of relationships, bereavements and periods of depression. These are all part of life. I wish our universities can communicate more effectively with the students that money, fame and worldly success do not necessarily lead to happy and fulfilled lives.
I would like to see all universities within the next few years begin to teach courses on happiness and what it means to be happy. I do believe that by taking the subject seriously, universities will not only be doing a much better job morally for their students, but they will also help produce young men and women who will help to build a far better society than their parents did. This is a real challenge and it is one to which I believe all universities should rise.’…
Today, I ask all the people of good will, my academic colleagues and others all over the world, please let us come together for the common good. Let us come together and address this crisis. Those who are suffering, for all practical purposes, can be our children and grand children.
This matter requires our urgent attention. Please write to me and share your vision, ideas and suggested remedies with me. I will then, compile a report to include all responses that I have received for further studies and analysis.
The youth, all over the world, deserve better. Please let us come together and give all the love we have to the next generation of leaders, our best hope for a better future and a better world.