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The Maastricht Diplomat

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When Stress Takes Over

Mia Rose Penn

Mental Health is a Bigger Issue in Maastricht Than You Might Think

In the last few years, mental health problems have been on the rise everywhere, most commonly depression, anxiety and burnout. Naturally, the causes of psychological issues are often rooted in traumatic experiences, like family loss or loss of perspective. But the occurrence of such experiences has not magically increased in the past years. What is on the rise are mental health problems caused by stress, especially among young people. 50% of mental health problems occur by the age of 14, 75% by the age of 24. This trend affects Maastricht students just as well. To many students who have experienced the work load here, this might not be shocking. However, the sheer amount of people that are affected by it might indeed be surprising.

“I remember my first panic attack distinctively, because I really thought I was about to die. To anyone watching me, this assumption seemed ridiculous, but that’s what it felt like. My arms and legs turned cold, my pulse went through the roof, I couldn’t move. I felt this immense pressure on my chest, like somebody was trying to squeeze out my lungs. I felt like this for 30 minutes until it was suddenly over.” – Anxiety Disorder

“There are many different types of depression. I would say it feels like not being deserving of love, as if nobody likes you. You feel entirely alone. Every little thing, even dull things like taking the trash out, are overwhelming. You constantly feel exhausted, as if you’d just been sick. You don’t feel like doing anything. And you lose all hope that it is ever going to be different again.” – Depression

“It feels not unlike pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it crash back down again just a few meters from the top. Tasks that you could accomplish with ease before just start feeling like colossal challenges. So, you put them off until you can no longer, after which all your time goes into doing just enough to have it over with. You stop seeing friends so you can work but this cuts of any relief from the stress, making things get progressively worse until you can’t do a thing anymore. All your previous interests just leave you sort of listless now.”   – Burnout

How many of your friends or peers have reached out to you, to a student councillor or to professional help? How many of your friends have told you that they feel like they cannot handle the pressure anymore? That they feel like they cannot think straight anymore, like every thought is slipping out of their mind in an instant? The people interviewed here say one, maybe two. But the number might be much higher – people often feel like they cannot be open about it.

The MD interviewed Pia Harbers, student advisor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in Maastricht. In one academic year, she and her colleague see 50% of all students studying in the faculty at least once. The majority of these students come to talk about their study progress (30%), struggle with purely academic problems or have questions concerning rules and regulations (25%). 25% of those, however, talk to her about the symptoms described above. That is one in eight at FaSoS.

In her daily work, Pia directly witnesses the increasing trend of mental health influenced by stress. “Stress is caused by pressure, maybe pressure from studying, also pressure from parents – but mostly pressure from within. There’s the urge to be perfect.” For many students, problems are rooted in the challenge of living abroad, in a city where rent is high and home is far. Taking on a job to finance your studies alongside the amount of work you need to put into actually finishing your studies is also a lot to handle.

But Pia also describes the phenomenon of many students taking on too many tasks at a time that they think they need to complete, and complete perfectly. Motivated by having a complete CV, students engage in several student associations and do voluntary work, which although being voluntary costs time and effort. Although there is no deadline that might cost you a good grade if it’s not met, there’s the pressure to not let other people down. “And then everything comes together: work, deadlines, exam, extra work”.

Such pressure is also created by social media. Students in Maastricht think “you have to be active 24/7 with studies, with friends, with everything. You have to react to every message. You need to document all your accomplishments, be perfect in everything you do, you need to look good, you need to do volunteering, you need to work, you need to document everything and put that online”. This continuous pressure leads students to feel guilty when taking out even one day where they do nothing.

This feeling of wanting to do everything perfectly then leads to stress, leads to hyperventilation and then leads to even more anxiety. Pia says: “What I see is a fear of failure, and compared to 15 years ago, this has quadrupled. It used to be fear of failure in one task, and now it is fear of failure in general. Students tell me they feel completely paralysed sometimes, they feel exhausted and desperate. Their thoughts go in all directions. And thinking ‘What could I have done differently’ does not change anything”.

If, of course, such problems mount to very serious mental health issues leading to suicidal thoughts, drug use or self-mutilation, Pia refers the students to professional help, like the psychologists at Maastricht University. But sometimes, simply reflecting on your lifestyle can already help. What kind of expectations do you have for yourself? Where does the stress really come from? Is there a deeper cause to your problem?

But the most important thing to do when you or your friend is suffering in such a way, is to reach out. “Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. Talk to friends, talk to a tutor, talk to a mentor. You are not alone. There are people who support you, who have the same experience. There is always something that can be done.”

Greta Koch is currently doing a master in European Studies at UM and writes for the MD


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