Student protests set mental health bandwagon rolling

Universidad de Chile's students from the faculty of architecture and urbanism, who protested three weeks about academic overload and its mental health impact, have set a mental health bandwagon rolling.

“I am sleepy”, “Only free afternoon=team work”, “I do not want to be anxious every time I deliver a task” read some of the posters displayed by faculty of architecture and urbanism students. The protest was their way of attracting attention after all the students in several classes sought psychological help and the system could not cope.

Their example is being followed by students from other disciplines in universities up and down the country, who are discussing the problem and putting forward demands for reducing academic overload and increasing medical support for the affected students.

Third-year dentistry students from Universidad de Chile stopped attending classes over a week ago alleging that psychologists provided by the university are not coping with the growing demand.

The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) sent a letter to Education Minister Marcela Cubillos complaining about the "lack of public policies" in a subject they say "is urgent". Furthermore, CONFECH called on university students to stage stoppages in order to reflect on mental health.

Student complaints were strengthened by the results of the First National Survey on Mental Health in Universities published on 29 April. According to the survey, 33.5% of university students have stress symptoms, 45.5% anxiety symptoms and 46% depressive symptoms. Furthermore, 29.7% suffer from the three problems at the same time.

The study is based on replies from 600 students from three universities.

According to the survey, starting university is stressful because incoming students lack good habits concerning study, sleep and eating. Furthermore, today’s generation does not necessarily ask for psychological help – 59% of the students surveyed said they had never been to a psychologist.

Ana Barrera, an academic at the Catholic University of Temuco, who led the survey, says students do not seek specialist help because in a society focused on success, psychological problems are often seen as a sign of weakness.

“Depression, anxiety and stress can develop into more serious mental ailments if they are not dealt with properly,” says Barrera.

In her view, universities should emphasise actions that promote mental health and self-care, such as reviewing academic loads or lending students more support in critical periods such as the end of a semester.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that a growing number of university students are the first generation in their families to join a university. The figure for Universidad de Chile, Chile's largest university, is 46%. Furthermore, they mainly come from state schools that do not prepare them well for higher education.

Criticism on social media

Student protests about work overload sparked criticism on social media. “These kids have no notion of the sacrifice that getting a university degree entails. The cause: they have been taught everything about their rights but nothing about their duties!!” said one of the critics.

But Juan Pablo Urrutia, head of the faculty of architecture and urbanism, backed his students: “We mustn’t confuse effort with sacrifice. Studying at a university requires perseverance, dedication, vocation and a lot of work. But it is not a sacrifice.”

National daily El Mercurio invited seven academics to put forward their points of view. Here are some of them.

Juan Larraín, academic vice-rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said: “When we discuss whether we demand too much from our students, it is important to remember that we have an ethical obligation towards society that says that the person that receives a diploma fulfils certain attributes.”

Rosa Devés, vice-rector of academic affairs, Universidad de Chile, said: “These are students who are able to change the public agenda, which has nothing to do with party politics. They are diverse, students of enormous effort, from families that do not have the experience. We are glad this is the case because we have a commitment towards equity and inclusion.”

Larraín said: “You may ask why we opened our universities to students who have more problems. Well, we do this with the conviction that a university that is not diverse is not excellent.”

Magdalena Vergara, executive director of the Acción Educar thinktank, said: “Overload is not a new problem… but now there is more awareness of the importance of mental health.”

Susana Claro, an academic at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile’s School of Government, said: “I tell students that they are here not only to learn their subjects; if they do not develop stress-coping habits, it will be worse later.”

Most universities admit to a lack of closeness with students.

According to Vergara, university students may feel they do not belong because, unlike their experience at primary and secondary school, they are not close to their teachers.

“How are we going to educate somebody we do not know? They are students from different backgrounds. Knowing them is not trivial. Academics must talk, connect and understand the challenges facing their students. This needs a new institution,” said Devés.

Better welfare programmes

Universities are starting to improve their welfare programmes to take account of the new issues. Universidad de Talca is a good example: since the start of the academic year last March it has been carrying out a mental health policy that includes increasing the number of hours of university psychologists.

For the first time this year Universidad de Chile’s faculty of architecture and urbanism is assessing students’ perception of overload in and out of the classroom, as well as collecting information from their team of psychologists and doing research on quality of life.

Most universities now survey incoming students, asking them questions ranging from their family background to how much time they devote to each subject. At Pontifical Catholic University, all students that underperform are informed that they are under ‘academic alert’ and that they must get in touch with a faculty member to devise a study plan. There is follow-up on all of them.

Furthermore, all higher education institutions have support programmes for academically disadvantaged students that include tutorials and levelling plans.

Mental health problems at universities reflect the country-wide situation. According to the second survey of mental health in Chile, 23% of all illnesses are mental. Chile’s rate of suicide increase ranks second after South Korea among the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).