For a more open and caring university community

Ten years ago, many dramatic changes took place in my life within a short period of time: I lost my first child during pregnancy and unexpectedly ended up alone while expecting my second child. After this, the hectic life of a working single parent exhausted me. The old losses that I had not been able to process properly – with my new situation in life and everyday routines demanding attention – surfaced and ultimately resulted in moderate depression. I was no longer a student at this point, but I was a young adult. I sought help from occupational healthcare and finally got support for rehabilitative psychotherapy from Kela. This support allowed me to go to therapy that lasted several years, and I found the joy of life again. There are many of us perfectly normal people for whom the pressure becomes overwhelming at some point of our lives. One in five Finns have depression at some point during their lives. Fortunately, many also recover.

Psychological symptoms among university students on the increase

The psychological symptoms of university students have been increasing for the entire time the issue has been systematically studied in the Student health survey. In the latest survey in 2016, as many as 29 per cent reported psychological symptoms, whereas the corresponding figure in 2000 was 23 per cent. In 2017, over 10 per cent of all students used the services of the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS) with mental health as the reason for their visit. Why are psychological symptoms among university students increasing?

Researchers Juhani Saari and Tiia Villa delved into the wellbeing deficiencies of university students based on the data of the 2016 Student health study and discovered two phenomena in particular that seem to have increased the occurrence of psychological symptoms when compared to the situation at the turn of the millennium. Firstly, problems with subsistence appear to be becoming chronic and, secondly, loneliness and lack of discussion support from loved ones appears to be increasing.

What makes people seek help?

In spring 2016, the Student Union of the University of Helsinki conducted a survey to investigate students’ experiences with the FSHS’s mental health services and the University’s study psychologist services. One of the questions we asked concerned the factors that made people seek help. In the open answers, at least the following reasons emerged:

  • Sudden personal crises, e.g. relationships ending
  • Stress and overburdening oneself
  • Evictions and problems with subsistence
  • Long-term problems that may already have begun before studies (difficulties of childhood family, bullying)

How to prevent psychological symptoms?

Many of the reasons listed above can be influenced by influencing the circumstantial factors. It is easier to endure personal crises if your support net includes other people than just the partner you are separating from. By building student organisations that are truly open to everyone, we provide everyone with opportunities to have social relationships. By ensuring that the amount of work required in degrees and courses corresponds to the number of credits given for them and that students’ subsistence is sufficiently secure for full-time studies, we reduce overburdening. Secure subsistence also decreases evictions and problems with subsistence. The most difficult task is to retroactively affect what has happened in someone’s childhood or early youth, but this is where rehabilitative services and a warm, welcoming student community step into the picture.

Mercy to people with symptoms

In November–December 2018, the Student Union of the University of Helsinki ran a campaign with the hashtag #kaikkihyvin? (‘everything ok?’) for a more open discussion culture and a more caring university community. There is no shame in psychological symptoms or a mental health diagnosis. It is a sign of strength that you recognise you need help and seek it. There is help available regardless of whether you are covered by student, municipal or occupational healthcare. In addition to this, every one of us can show that we care about others. In retrospect, one of the most valuable sentences said to me during my traumatic situation ten years ago was the one uttered by the on-call doctor at the maternity hospital after they had stated there was nothing more that could be done to prevent the very premature birth: ‘You could not possibly have caused this’. What a relief in the horror of the situation!

If you have psychological symptoms, have mercy on yourself. Your symptoms are not your own fault.

I want to apply this thought to psychological symptoms, too. If you have symptoms yourself, have mercy on yourself. Your symptoms are not your own fault. If you have managed to avoid the hard knocks in life so far, please understand that everyone does not have the same starting point as you do and show them mercy. No-one has caused their symptoms themselves, and no-one can get rid of them through segregation or stigmatisation – they need suitable support and, if needed, encouragement to seek professional help. It is the society’s duty to ensure that it can respond to the need for help.

If you have managed to avoid the hard knocks in life so far, please understand that everyone does not have the same starting point as you do and show them mercy.

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