Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies

By: Hermien Miltenburg · 18 April 2018
Category: Studying

’’Studying is wonderful, you develop yourself, you learn about other worlds and you discover new possibilities…’’
Luckily, very many young people share these feelings. Unfortunately, however, there are many students and potential students who don’t think that life is so wonderful. Who feel stress, who are depressed. What can you as a parent do? Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies is unfortunately increasingly common.
The national Dutch newspaper Trouw recently published a shocking article by Gerrit-jan Kleinjan about this subject. (Dutch version, in het Nederlands)

Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies

Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies is unfortunately increasingly common

Half of today’s students suffer from anxiety and depression

That was the headline in Trouw. Let me quote from the article:
’’Half of today’s students suffer from anxiety and depression. One out of five actively considers suicide. The results of the first large study of their psychological health are worrying. The pressure to achieve is too high for many students. Almost twenty percent of students sometimes seriously consider suicide, as was revealed in a new report on studying and psychological health that was published today. ‘This risk group actively considers committing suicide, which illustrates how serious their problems are,’ said Jolien Dopmeijer, who led the study. ‘They have truly gone a step further than just thinking about suicide, something that can accompany gloom and depression.’ “ According to Dopmeijer this information is in line with a previous study. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies  is increasingly common, not only in the Netherlands.

Pressure to achieve

The article in Trouw continues:
’’The increased pressure to achieve, the fear of incurring large study debts and the feeling of missing the boat because the number of study programmes and courses is overwhelming result in psychological problems for many students,’ said Dopmeijer. ‘Personal circumstances are the main reason why students stop, followed by issues such as motivation or the wrong programme of studies.’ “
With this last sentence, Dopmeijer is probably referring to an earlier study that showed that the wrong choice of study is the main reason ‘to stop studying’ But whatever the cause is, depression arising from an incorrectly chosen study programme… no student should have to deal with this.

Studying is indeed wonderful, you discover your talents, the world is at your feet… but still…stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies… is more common that you might think. Course director WUR

Feeling unhappy is very normal

A few weeks ago another article on depression and young adults, ’’Feeling unhappy is very normal’’, was published in de Volkskrant, also a Dutch national newspaper. Author Irene de Zwaan spoke about the personal story of Stephan Bouwman, a dj at Qmusic. I quote Irene: ’’Crying and in a broken voice, he talked about the little voice in his head that told him how ugly he was and the feeling that he never did anything right. According to the 27-year-old Bouwman, there’s a ‘ridiculous taboo’ on showing negative emotions. Which leads to this ‘scream for attention’, he said. ‘Not just for myself, but for everyone who’s also suffering from this.’ (…). According to a study done by the Trimbos Institute, one out of five people suffers from depression at some point in their lives. This means about 800,000 Dutch people. A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Health showed that depressive people want to talk about their situation, but they have difficulty in starting the conversation. Friends and relatives avoid the subject out of fear of hurting the other.“

Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies

As older people, we tend to look back on our own younger years through rose-coloured glasses. How can you possibly be depressed if there’s so little to worry about? You’re young… Your future lies ahead of you… We live in a prosperous country… Enjoy your youth before reality hits…
This is all true, but you still see a lot of stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies. Being young, being a student or choosing a programme is not so enjoyable for everyone.

Stress when choosing a programme of studies

This is a difficult choice for everyone. But some young people become truly desperate. It’s a real crisis for them. On the one hand, there are the enormous numbers of study programmes to choose from. On the other hand… your choice immediately has to be the right one, or so it seems. A wrong choice costs a lot of money.
You are simultaneously faced with life questions that are almost impossible to answer:

  • Who am I? What can I do?
  • What do I want? What are my passions?
  • What suits my temperament?
  • Who do I want to become?
  • Who can help me?
degree programme quality

Choosing something that suits you remains important for your whole (student) life. Preventing stress and depression while studying and choosing a programme of studies is also related to making good choices.

Who am I? The stress of choosing a programme of studies

If there’s one thing an adolescent finds difficult, it’s discovering who he or she really is. What is his core? What actually fits his personality? And questions involving a choice are very difficult to answer.
You, as a parent, and I both know that these questions return with every choice that you make in your life. And that you become increasingly certain which choices you should make. But this is different for an adolescent. What a challenge!

Depression when choosing a programme of studies

Stress and depression while studying and choosing a programme of studies can sometimes be the basis of a depression. I refer again to the article by Irene de Zwaan: ’’According to behavioural scientist Dian de Vries from Utrecht University this (ed. admitting to depression by well-known Dutch people) is a positive development. Especially for young people who are struggling with their self-image. ‘Young people are trying to discover who they are and what standards they have: what is normal and how should I feel?’ Research by De Vries has shown that the mainly positive image that people sketch online about their lives has a negative effect on young people, who consequently become less satisfied with themselves. ‘Influencers and well-known people have a leading role in showing their vulnerability,’ said De Vries. ‘They can show you that it’s normal to feel unhappy sometimes.’ “
If you add the need (?) and pressure to immediately make the right choice of study programme, then you can understand how difficult it is for these young people.

Help for those choosing a study

Luckily there are a lot of people who can help someone trying to choose a programme of studies. Parents, the school dean and mentor, study advisors and student deans at universities of professional science (HBOs) and universities, study programme advisory offices…
Talking about feelings of depression can definitely help. And it’s not at all strange if choosing a study programme or studying itself are difficult. My advice for parents: If you see that something’s wrong with your child, that something’s not going well… Try to talk about it. Young adults are sometimes more vulnerable than they appear to be.
Of course, it’s great to be young, to study. But if feeling unhappy starts to dominate, then it’s not at all great anymore.

Is it too hard to choose?

Is it too hard to choose a programme of studies? Perhaps the chooser should allow themselves a gap year so they have time to think about the options. It’s better to take more time than to make an overhasty decision.
A high number of students stop during their first year. Naturally not a disaster if this happens to you; you can also learn from wrong decisions… But preventing a wrong decision is always better. Half of those who stopped later said that they had spent too little time on choosing their programme of studies. A large number of them made a very fast decision in April of their last year of secondary school even though they weren’t ready to do so. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies can be prevented by taking time for yourself to discover what you really want to do with your life.

Stress and depression when studying, high demands

The demands made on students are high. You have to get enough study credits, you have to do well enough to get Binding Study Advice… you have to choose exactly those subjects that suit you best or that offer the best chances for a job in the future…
And you have to have an active private life (the student thinks)… Join a student association… Have fun… Find new friends… Stay in touch with old friends… Keep or begin a relationship… Enjoy your room… Get a part-time job… Stay in touch with your parents… Play sports… Talk about all of this on social media… This is just much too much. And the constant thought of your debt in the back of your mind…
I start to panic just listing all these activities.
So much is demanded of students. And they also demand a lot of themselves. Is all of this really necessary?

Students sometimes often make high private demands of themselves… new friends… a social life… part-time job… having fun… it’s sometimes just too much. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies are growing problems.

Students sometimes often make high private demands of themselves… new friends… a social life… part-time job… having fun… it’s sometimes just too much. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies are growing problems.

Help for students

Is a student really becoming depressed or very unhappy? They can find help at universities of applied sciences and universities. But you have to ask for help yourself; no one is going to come to you. Is something not going well? Then you have to take action.
If the problems are related to your study, contact the study career counsellor or study advisor. That what they’re there for. He or she can help if the programme of studies is the wrong one. Perhaps you can still switch? He or she can evaluate your study results. Are they really so bad? Are you studying correctly? The study advisor can also refer you to a training in study skills… and there are so many more things that a study advisor can do.
The student dean can provide help or references in cases of depression or obstacles. That often happens. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s important that students don’t walk away from their problems but that they ask for help on time. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies? Ask for help.

Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies… stay in touch with your child

As a parent you can determine increasingly less for your child. The young adult has to learn to bear his or her own responsibilities.
Parents, and I include myself, try to protect their child from every problem. But adolescents have to learn about dealing with problems… Young adults have to learn how they can be happy. We also want the very best for our children… but that isn’t always the highest level of education. Stress and depression when studying and choosing a programme of studies are unfortunately often caused by well-intended advice from parents to choose the ‘highest possible’ level of education.
Let your child make his or her own choices, stop pampering adult children. Don’t push them in a direction that they don’t want.
What should you do? I think it’s very important to remain involved with your child. Stress and depression when studying are growing problems.
Those choosing a study programme and students themselves think that it’s important to be able to go their own way, but they also appreciate the safe haven offered by their parents.

Hermien Miltenburg, parental advisor

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