[Letter] Tackling student well-being at the roots

To prevent serious psychological problems, every student should have an obligatory course on personal leadership, writes TU Delft alumnus Mathijs van Kouwen in this letter.

“A huge number of students experience stress and would benefit from learning to plan better, reducing procrastination, and focusing better.” (Photo: Justyna Botor)

Students have to juggle lots of things at the same time, and that does not always come without stress. The majority (62%) of Dutch students experience a lot of stress, revealed (in Dutch) the 2022 Monitor Mentale gezondheid en Middelengebruik Studenten hoger onderwijs (monitor for mental health and substance abuse among students in higher education) from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

A poll I did via the TU Delft Instagram account showed this to be the case for 69% of the respondents (see image 1). 

Although a lot of students fortunately do not suffer from depression or burn-out, they do find it hard to keep juggling everything in a healthy manner. Other Instagram polls show that this group is larger than I thought (see image 2).

Image 1: Results of a poll among 785 students by TU Delft on Instagram on 26 June 2023. It reads: stress? No: 31 %. Yes: 69 per cent.

While these results are not scientifically proven, I find them shocking. A huge number of students experience stress and would benefit from learning to plan better, reducing procrastination, and focusing better. Student well-being is clearly a problem.

Outgoing education minister Dijkgraaf too recognises (in Dutch) ‘that the mental health of students is under pressure’. On 14 June of this year, the he submitted a comprehensive report (in Dutch) to the House of Representatives containing measures to combat stress and the pressure to perform among students.

I was happy to read in this report that degree programmes are being encouraged to teach students skills such as planning, self-direction, and how to safeguard their mental health. This is exactly what students need according to the above mentioned polls.

‘The report completely misses the point’

Finally there is a report emphasising the importance of teaching personal leadership and the ability to manage oneself and achieve ones goals in a healthy and pleasant way. Unfortunately, after a couple of bullet points, my enthusiasm disappeared.

This happened when the tip was presented to offer free optional courses or workshops. It was not the word ‘optional’ that was between quotation marks, but the word ‘free’. Where charging students is acceptable, making a course or workshop on personal leadership mandatory is not.

In my opinion the report completely misses the point. Especially the stressed students with, as yet, few serious mental health symptoms will not make time for or put energy into an extra subject or workshop.

That offering an optional subject, whether paid for or not, is unlikely to reach students becomes clear from recent research (in Dutch) among 22 universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands. The report says that current optional subjects, workshops, or courses are not sufficiently used or not easily found.

‘Students in need of help need a push’

Students in need of help apparently need a push to avoid serious psychological complaints. Even if – or maybe exactly because – they themselves do not realise that they need them. This is why I believe that every student should have an obligatory course on personal leadership.

The course should have credits (ECTS) so that the overall workload of the degree programme remains the same. Some degree programmes currently teach personal leadership via student mentors or via learning goals in project courses, however this should (also) be taught by specially trained people in a separate course. Students should learn best practices in staying mentally clear, concentrating better and keeping in touch with their own priorities and goals.

The course should reflect the experiences of the students, and students should always know the ‘why’, and get clear and practical tips. Since 2020, I have provided students with training in personal leadership, ironically optional and paid for. In the workshops and lectures I, for example, explain the importance of setting boundaries and taking breaks, and I provide the students tips about how their calendars can be used in this.

The highly positive reactions the trainings often receive show that sharing practical tips helps students keep control of their daily lives. I often hear students say “if only I had known that before”. Hopefully, in the future, I won’t have to hear this anymore.

(Photo: Victor van der Drift)

About the author


Up until May 2023, Mathijs van Kouwen was a master’s student of Sustainable Energy Technology at TU Delft. He has been giving trainings and lectures to students on personal leadership and reducing stress since 2020.


He published a book (in Dutch) at the beginning of June 2023 called ‘Studeren is combineren – minder stress en meer focus in een druk studentenleven’  (studying is combining – less stress and more focus in a busy student life). He hopes that his efforts will help more students stay in control of their busy daily student lives. 


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