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"Navigating Pressure and Enhancing Support for Students"

by Dr. Albana Canollari-Baze, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Schiller International University. Psychologist and Certified Professional Coach, Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society.

Mental Health Week is an annual event dedicated to raising awareness and promoting mental wellness, as a cornerstone in educational institutions worldwide. As the pressures of academic life intensify, universities recognize the critical need to address students’ mental health proactively. The essence of this article is to reflect on the challenges students face regarding mental health and to emphasize the importance of providing adequate support and resources.

There is enough academic evidence to confirm that students’ mental health issues have increasingly become concerning even before COVID-19. A review of 105 Further Education (FE) colleges in England found that over three years, 85% of colleges reported an increase in mental health difficulties (Association of Colleges, 2017), with depression and anxiety both prevalent among students. In 2019, a survey of students from 10 universities in the UK conducted by Insight Network concluded that approximately 1 in 5 students had a current mental health diagnosis and that “almost half had experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help”—an increase from 1 in 3 in the same survey conducted in 2018 (Pereira S. et al., 2019). Further, the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown increased negative emotional symptoms among European students (Oliveira C.P. et al., 2021). While various psychological concerns have been identified upon entering university, research reveals an increase in developing severe mental health problems, including self-harm, leading to an increase in demand for support.

These prevalent mental health challenges pose a significant threat to the mental health and well-being of students. Their impact extends to educational, social, and economic domains, contributing to academic underperformance and increasing the risk of university dropout. Mental Health Week serves as a vital reminder of the importance of mental well-being, especially for students who often juggle multiple responsibilities. Academic stress, social pressures, and personal issues can significantly impact students' mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

When discussing students' mental health, several important themes emerge, each addressing different aspects of their well-being and the factors that influence it. Here are the most critical themes:

Academic Pressure and Stress: High expectations from parents, lecturers, and themselves can lead to significant stress and anxiety among students. The pressure of managing heavy coursework, assignments, and exams can overwhelm students, impacting their mental health.

Social Relationships: Positive friendships can provide emotional support, while peer pressure and social isolation can contribute to anxiety and depression. In addition, family support is crucial for students' mental health. International students in particular lack the physical presence of their families which can lead to additional stress. Conversely, family conflicts and lack of support can exacerbate stress and anxiety.

Identity and Self-Esteem: When students leave home to start their academic journey, they are approaching the final stage of their adolescence transitioning into their young adulthood self. However, at times, issues related to body image, self-worth, and confidence which might have been present during adolescence are carried over. The impact of social media on self-esteem, body image, and peer comparisons can be profound, often contributing to anxiety and depression. In addition, challenges related to gender identity, sexual orientation, cultural background, and acceptance can significantly impact mental health.

Mental health resources: The American academic model offers academic advising which acts as an initial point of reference to depict students’ personal and academic challenges. While universities with a large community of students in most cases offer on-campus counselling services for students, smaller academic institutions can continue to increase students’ awareness of available mental health resources and encourage them to use them without fear of stigma. Suggesting easy access to mental health professionals and counseling is essential for early intervention and support.

Mental health literacy: Academic institutions, which do not necessarily offer psychological degrees, can still propose psychological courses that encourage students to talk openly about their struggles and to seek help in case of need. SIU offers numerous similar courses for all degrees. Promoting mental health literacy helps students understand mental health issues, recognize symptoms, and know when and how to seek help.

Resilience and Coping Skills: Teaching students resilience helps them cope with stress, adapt to challenges, and bounce back from adversity. Some effective coping strategies, such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and time management skills, can significantly improve their mental health.

Institutional Climate: A supportive and inclusive environment can foster positive mental health; the opposite can be detrimental. Further, broader societal issues, such as economic stress, violence, and political instability, can also impact students' mental health. Universities ought to have in their focus on the mental well-being of students coming from zones of conflict.

Overall health and lifestyle: Regular physical activity and a balanced diet as well as quality sleep are important for maintaining emotional well-being. On the contrary, excessive screen time can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

While the above are some of the different factors that influence well-being during student life, paying attention to major transitions, such as changing accommodation, finding an internship, or entering the workforce is also crucial as they can be particularly stressful towards the end of the academic journey. Providing support during these transitions helps students adjust and maintain their mental health. All the above become even more complex when universities need to take serious actions that are tailored to the needs of students with learning difficulties.

Schiller International University (SIU) joins the many academic institutions in dedicating a week to mental health awareness, intending to reduce stigma, provide resources, and promote self-care among the student community. Open discussions and educational activities help normalize conversations about mental health, making it easier for students to seek help. For this reason, during the Career Fair week, SIU will organize informative psychological workshops to promote students’ well-being. Encouraging students to prioritize their mental health through self-care practices can lead to healthier coping mechanisms and improved overall well-being.

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