College students increasingly describe how the pressure to perform well is wreaking havoc on their well-being. Research even shows a worrying trend toward psychological conditions related to the strain. Here's how to prevent the worst.
MUNICH — Lena Zimmermann doesn't like to think about her first semester at the University of Hamburg. She missed her family and her hometown in Nordhessen. And she felt overwhelmed by the challenge to get her studies done.
"I put myself under so much pressure because I wanted to do well," the biology student says. "I could barely sleep." She wasn't feeling well, and almost every weekend drove the 400 kilometers back home to visit her parents. By the time the first Christmas holidays arrived, she thought about dropping out.
There are many clichés about college life: that students party a lot, study a bit, enjoy their youth. But for most students, life is far from this happy-go-lucky description. According to a recent German government survey, half of all students are totally stressed out, and a quarter say that it's impossible to overcome the pressure with common relaxation techniques. One-fifth have even been diagnosed with psychological conditions such as depression, stress disorders and chronic anxiety.
For the survey, Germany"s largest health insurance fund gathered feedback from its 190,000 student members and questioned 1,000 of them more deeply about their lifestyles. There were many more psychological diagnoses compared to a 2009 survey. There's a similar trend in other European countries too. In Austria, 61% of students reported being stressed out in 2009, with 30% saying their academic performance had been affected by trouble concentrating.
The Times sounded the alarm in the UK when 20% more students at the country's most prestigious universities reported seeking psychological counseling. "In Germany too, the introduction of bachelor degrees has increased the demand for psychological counseling," says psychoanalyst Hans Werner Rückert, head of the University of Berlin's psychology department.
The growing number of cases like these can be explained in part by the particular challenges of this stage of adulthood. "Between the ages of 20 and 30, you are confronted with a number of development tasks, and a crisis every once in a while is part of the process," explains Professor Günter Reich, a psychotherapist at the University of Göttingen. Many young people struggle to find their independence after leaving home and their parents. "Problems during the first semesters are common," he says. "Students with social fears especially often feel socially isolated. Later, there may be threshold situations such as difficulties when writing their thesis or nerves around exam time. Then comes the challenging transition from student life to work life. This can be stressful, especially if there is a lot of uncertainty concerning the professional future."
University benches at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität — Photo : Facebook page
Where grades fail
The years of study are no longer a process of trial and error where you get the chance to learn how to deal with your fears and identity crises, Reich says. These days the academic experience is characterized by extreme pressure to perform and the ticking off of compulsory modules. Those who don't perform during your bachelor studies won't be accepted for their masters, which Reich says is silly. "Grades don't say much about one's qualifications," he says. "Therefore, there's a lot of pressure and fear, and there's no true perception of the bigger picture."
It's not easy for students to escape the stress trap, but Reich suggests cultivating social contacts early and gravitating toward group projects over solitary work. It's easier to cope with new experiences and pressure as part of a collective. Moreover, it helps to relieve pressure. It's never been as important as it is now for students to find a work-life balance , he says.
There are many ways for students to try to make their bachelor studies a more humane experience. "The system is rather flexible," says the psychoanalyst Bückert. "Usually there is a way of negotiating with the university which exams need to be taken each semester. It is even an option to take two more semesters to do your bachelor."
And if the pressure becomes too much, there are academic help desks that offering counseling. But it's also a duty for universities to train professors in detecting psychological or social stress soon enough, so that students can be offered appropriate help.
Sometimes, like in the case of Lena Zimmermann, just talking helps. She attended one of her professor's office hours and told her about plans to quit her studies. The professor succeeded in dissuading her. Zimmermann recalls that her teacher told her that she felt the same way in the beginning. "She suggested I give it another try," the student says. "She also took away my fear of not being good enough. In the end, she suggested I move into a shared flat."
That's what Zimmermann did, and her roommates quickly became her substitute family. Now she's not far from graduating. And she has even bigger plans for next year: to earn her masters degree in Sweden.