Student psychologists: ‘Stay in contact with others’

More students appear to be lonely than before the corona crisis. Psychologists Wouter Backx and Janne de Kan suggest what you can do and where to get help.

Photo for illustration. (Photo: Dalia Madi)

Research into the impact of corona on the psychological health of students abound. The figures show that not only are more students lonely, but more are also depressed and less motivated than before the corona crisis. TU Delft students too are struggling. “There is no reward after a week of hard work,” said Dhruv Gulhar last month. Fellow student Mayukh Sarkar, who arrived at TU Delft at the beginning of this academic year for a master’s, said that he hardly knows any teachers and classmates. Delta discussed the woes of students with Backx and De Kan.

What kind of problems can students come to you with?
“All sorts of problems to do with mental health that affect their studies,” says Backx. “We regularly see students with concentration issues, who are worried or have a fear of failing. But they sometimes come to us with completely different issues too. Relationship problems, for example, can also affect your studies.”

‘First years are entering the craziest of student lives this year’

Do you see other kinds of problems now in the corona crisis than before?
Backx continues. “Not so much different, as an escalation of existing problems. What we do see more of now is loneliness. Students don’t come to us saying that their problem is loneliness. It is hidden in other things. Normally, you encourage each other if you are together, but this aspect of togetherness has completely gone. The problems – concentration issues, lack of motivation, worry and stress – are magnified by loneliness.”

Is it more difficult for students than for other groups?
“I think that students are more heavily hit, even if it is only because of the strange way that they are taught. For first years, the transition from secondary school to university is a big change anyway. They are not part of a small, tightly knit group anymore, but are completely independent for the first time. Their student time should be the time of their lives, but they are now shut away at their laptops. First years are entering the craziest of student lives this year,” says Backx.

This must apply to international students who are here for the first time, too.
“Yes,” says Backx, “and they ask themselves why they came to the Netherlands in the first place given that they could just as well attend lectures from home at their computers with family and friends around them.”

Research shows that over 40% of internationals suffer some degree of depression. This is 14% among Dutch students. Who should I turn to if I, a Dutch or international student, am thinking about suicide?
“If you are contemplating suicide and don’t need help immediately, then come to us. Check our website to see how you can sign up. We have a drop-in consultation time slot every day (see the details at the bottom of the article). If you need immediate help, contact your doctor, the medical centre or phone 113 right away. Number 113 is the suicide prevention line and you can talk or chat with them in Dutch or in English,” Backx explains.

‘It is a greater taboo for students from non-Western cultures to go to a psychologist’

Delta has written some stories on studying during the corona crisis. The internationals in particular said that it was hard. Do you see this reflected among the students that come to you?
Backx says that “International students miss their trusted social support network. We also see that it is a greater taboo for students from non-Western cultures to go to a psychologist. They might not think this themselves, but they may hear from home that they are ‘crazy’ if they want to talk to a psychologist. This stops them from coming. I always say that everyone is a bit crazy. Everyone benefits from psychological help, including myself.”

Is there any way to reduce this hurdle for internationals?
De Kan explains that “During the introduction period (OWee and IP), we introduce ourselves to the new students and pay special attention to international students. We are also working on a roadmap which will make the range of welfare services available at TU Delft clearer. In doing so, we are looking through the eyes of international students and thinking about what information is important for them.” 

Students will then have to proactively look up the roadmap. Some students may prefer to receive emails from you.
“We send a newsletter every month explaining our services,” says De Kan. “On top of this, the Communications Department is advising us on how we can best reach students and through which channels. This could be through Brightspace, student associations or social media, for example.”  

At the moment, the waiting time for an intake is six to eight weeks. Where should students who cannot wait that long go?
“They can go to their own doctor or to Delft’s student healthcare services (in Dutch),” explains Backx.

How can you reduce the waiting time?
“It is not we who decides, but the Executive Board,” says Backx.

What if you could decide?
Backx says, “Do more on prevention.” De Kan continues. “Luckily, more attention is being paid to student welfare. Three years ago, the Student Council called for more to be done on prevention and my position was then created. As a prevention psychologist, I develop programmes which support students at an earlier stage.”

‘It’s perfectly normal to feel bad sometimes’

What kind of programmes for students are these?
De Kan explains. “An e-Health tool allows students to work on themes around mental health. We recently produced an interview series (in Dutch) in which TU Delft teachers share their personal stories. We want to show students that learning is a growth process and that setbacks are a normal part of it. Students often think that teachers are perfect, but nobody is perfect.”

All the students that Delta has spoken to recently spend 24/7 in their rooms. How can they bring some structure to their day?
De Kan says to “Try to do the regular things differently, for example by agreeing with others to study online together. From Monday 22 March, X TU Delft will offer the opportunity to start or close the day with an X coach and other students. This will give students some regularity and, for example, make it easier to get up on time. Another tip is to go outside regularly. We have a page where they can read tips and where to get support and help in emergencies.”

What else can students do for their mental health?
“Stay in contact with others. There are plenty of activities organised by students, study associations and the faculties. There is also the Unilife app which is a fun way to meet other students,” says De Kan.

Backx also says that “It is not always a bad thing to feel down. We tend to see ourself as a loser, while it’s perfectly normal to feel bad sometimes.” De Kan adds that “Think about that feeling. It’s ok to feel frustrated if you yet again have to push yourself to the laptop to do an online lesson. And keep an eye on each other. If you see that another student has missed lessons a couple of times, or is behaving differently, say so.”

That is easier said than done.
De Kan adds “Keep it simple by sending an app. Say what you saw. For example, say something like, you weren’t there last time, how is everything going? It shows that you care about the person.”

Do you need help?

  • You can contact the TU Delft student psychologists on The waiting list is six to eight weeks at the moment, but there are daily walk-in sessions between 12:45 and 13:45 for questions and quick advice.
  • The e-Health tool is available on Awareness & self-management. You can do some of the tips to help your psychological well-being independently
  • The student psychologists have published tips and tools on studying during the corona crisis online. They include a page on recognising psychological problems.
  • Motiv runs self-help groups, individual contact and a student support line. If you are contemplating suicide and you need immediate contact, phone or chat anonymously on 113 and/or contact your doctor or medical centre.
  • If you are concerned about someone you know, contact ‘Meldpunt Bezorgd’ on 0900 040 040 5 or on the website. This care is for people living in Delft. If you are concerned about someone outside Delft, phone 112 (the emergency services) or 113 (suicide help line).
Editor Redactie

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