On top of the traditional troubles some young people face on their own for the first time are the added factors of social media pressure and the effects of the pandemic. The crisis appears to have hit hard in Italy, with other countries, from India to France to the UK, reporting a similar situation.
TW: Contains references to suicide and suicidal thoughts.
On the first day of February, a 19-year-old took her own life in the bathroom of Milan’s IULM university. As reported in Italian daily La Stampa, a note left in the victim's purse said she considered her life and studies a failure.
Three months earlier, in the northeastern city of Bologna, a 23-year-old law student jumped off a bridge after telling his parents he was getting ready for graduation at the end of the week. He had not taken a single exam in months. The year before, in the same city, a student who had dropped out of university invited his parents to his would-be graduation, then took his life.
The Italian government halted the gathering of data on self-inflicted deaths in 2019, but there are growing number of reports in recent months in Italy's news media that suicides among university students are on the rise.
Although the causes of youth suicide are varied and complex, there is a longstanding connection for some to the university sphere, as students often describe feeling academic pressure and the weight of unmet familial expectations. Experts warn this is being exacerbated by the isolation coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the way that social media can feed feelings of inadequacy.
"Sleeping is a waste of time"
In Italy, experts and student associations say the country's university system deserves some of the blame. Excellence is necessary to succeed, but at the same time, the system allows students to fall behind easily — they can decide when to take a final exam, delaying it as much as a year after finishing a course.
Young Italians leaving university face one of the worst rates of youth unemployment in Europe. Even those with excellent grades have a hard time finding a job — a discouraging situation that’s especially hard on those already going through difficult times.
Add to that the way social media pushes a whole special set of "influencers" who have it all, including perfect grades. Italian media fuels the intense competition. “At 23, she is a doctor, model and influencer: ‘For me, sleeping is a waste of time’,” reads the headline of one of the many articles about Carlotta Rossignoli, the young prodigy who graduated from medical school a year early and attributed her success to little sleep and a “strong willpower.”
Normalizing “prodigy graduates” can turn an educational opportunity into a source of anxiety.
Italian newspapers reported glowingly last year on a young woman who did her thesis defense while in labor, continuing to answer questions between contractions.
Normalizing these so-called “prodigy graduates” pushes students to turn an educational opportunity into a source of anxiety, multiplying the burden of family expectations.
For many, going to university is their first time living away from their parents. Not wanting to disappoint can turn into a desperate battle not to fail, no matter the psychological cost.
And as always, on social media, the achievements of friends and acquaintances are only a swipe away — a perpetual reminder that somewhere, someone else is doing better.
Traditional laurel wreath worn by students in Italy on their graduation day.
Ask me how I am
The social media obsession dovetailed with the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of young people. The first wave hit Italy early and hard, and many university students, especially those working part-time to pay rent, were forced to move back in with their parents — sometimes re-entering dynamics from which they had voluntarily distanced themselves.
Cases of anxiety and depression have increased, driven by the loss of independence and physical contact, and disruption of daily routines.
Those who stayed in their university’s city have not fared much better.
At the University of Milan, in Lombardy, the region where the first cases of COVID-19 in Europe were detected in March 2020, requests for mental health support increased by 75%. Feelings of loneliness and bewilderment created symptoms of anxiety and depression among students stranded in the city.
This figure reflects a widespread problem. The 2022 “Ask Me How I Am” survey, which included 30,000 students nationwide, found cases of anxiety, fear, stress, worry about the future, eating disorders and self-harm in nine out of 10 students.
At the same time, endless budget cuts to education (the most recent: €3.86 billion in 2022) have reduced the availability of scholarships, and the housing crisis in several college towns has made it impossible for many to find their own apartments again, even with the end of the pandemic emergency.
Not an exception
This phenomenon is hardly limited to Italy: suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24 in Europe.
In the same week of the suicide in Bologna, a 21-year-old student at the University of Exeter, UK, took his own life after failing his final-year exams. It was the 11th suicide in six years at this university. At the University of Cambridge, five students died by suicide between March and June 2022, which led the institution to launch an inquiry to determine whether their studies had affected the students’ mental health, the Times of Londonreported.
The suicide of a Dalit student in Bombay sparked a debate about caste discrimination in higher education.
In France, a 2020 survey found that students were twice as likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression than people working. The University of Bordeaux study, which surveyed 4,000 people aged 18-40, also found low self-esteem was the main risk factor among young men.
Other cultural factors can also compound the problem. In mid-February, in India, the suicide of a Dalit student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay sparked a debate about caste discrimination in higher education.
“Even before the student could introduce himself or make friends, he is asked for his JEE scores (a national standardized exam),” a Ph.D. scholar told The Wire. “The score gives away too much information – the student’s academic standing, caste location and their social vulnerabilities.” You become “a quota student, undeserving of the space,” another student pursuing her MTech degree said.
Investing in mental health
At many universities, in Italy and abroad, poor mental health support and a lack of subsidized psychologists makes this problem worse.
The Italian government created a €10 million fund in 2022 to help people pay for therapy. In just the first few days, 300,000 people applied — 60% of them under 35 years old. The fund was increased to €25 million in 2023 in response to the huge demand.
Government support is crucial, especially for students: the average price of a therapy session in Italy is €80, and few can afford to go regularly, if at all.
In response to the 19-year-old student's suicide at IULM university in February, the Italian government was reportedly working on a proposal to hire at least one mental health counselor in every university.
But there still seems to be a long way to go.
16th century monastery, now the courtyard of one of Bologna University's buildings.
Where this service does already exist, it is underfunded and has months-long waiting lists, leaving counselors unable to keep up with the increasing numbers of young people seeking help.
The University of Milan had only one psychologist before the pandemic. With more students needing mental health help, the school hired three more — still just one psychologist for every 3,000 students.
At the University of Bologna, where the two young men who had lied about their graduation were enrolled, each student is entitled to three preliminary evaluation sessions, after which they must wait for the university to schedule actual therapy.
We are tired of mourning our peers.
For one Bologna student, it took a month and a half for the university to start his three evaluation sessions, which he finished on Dec. 15. Now, more than two months later, he is still waiting for the university to schedule his follow-up therapy appointments.
“I don’t even blame them,” he says. “The counseling service is carried out entirely by volunteers. They do their best, but it’s ridiculous.”
In her keynote address at the opening of the academic year, Emma Ruzzon, student council president at the University of Padua, expressed the need for universities to address an often toxic culture of competition.
"University should represent a path to liberation through knowledge, not a performance," she said. “We are tired of mourning our peers, and we want politics to make itself available to understand with us how to take action against this emergency, but we also need the courage to question the entire merit-centric and competitive system.”