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We all love puppies, but universities must do more to tackle student stress and anxiety

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With exam period in full swing, students across the country will find themselves interrupting their studies to play with adoring puppies. If recent studies are anything to go by, they will leave these petting sessions feeling happier and more relaxed. That calmness, however, will fade within the space of a few hours. 

In the last few years, practically every university in the UK has introduced a ‘Doggy De-Stress Day’ or some variation of the kind. Some have even taken the canine approach a step further: at Middlesex University, five Labradors have been hired to join the teaching and wellbeing team.

Campus puppies are part of a larger strategy for coping with increasing levels of stress and anxiety among students. That strategy, in a word, is ‘self-care’. The emphasis is on activities that encourage students to carve out some time away from their studies and hectic timetables. At the University of Leicester, ‘self-care’ activities this month have included a knitting workshop, a free fruit giveaway, and a bouncy castle. At the LSE’s 'De-Stress Fest' there have been outdoor yoga classes, cupcake making workshops, and even a trip to the Arcade. 

These activities, fun as they may be, are all framed in the language of personal responsibility. Their message: you are the guardian of your own wellbeing. 

Image: Flickr/ University of the Fraser Valley

Image Credit : University of the Fraser Valley via Flickr

The concept of self-care is not exclusive to higher education. Recently, the term has come to dominate the way we talk about wellbeing and health. Acts of self-care range from cancelling on plans with friends to having a lie-in and meditating. In essence, self-care is about not internalising society’s obsession with doing and producing at the expense of your health. 

The problem with it is that it treats the symptoms but not the cause. By placing the onus of mental wellbeing on the self, ‘self-care’ strategies refuse to look at the fissures within society that are causing people to burn out and breakdown. Rather than tending to these wounds, they stick a plaster over them — one that’s cute! and fun! and preferably fluffy too! 

Self-care at universities functions in the same way, diverting attention away from the institution and onto the individual. It’s not that the activities mentioned aren’t worthwhile. Dogs do make us feel better; knitting is calming; exercise does wonders for both our bodies and minds. For those suffering from bouts of deadline-induced nerves, they are often the solution. Unfortunately, what many university students are facing runs far deeper than that.  

As headline after headline tells us, universities are in the midst of a ‘mental health crisis’. This would be a dramatic statement, were it not true. One in four university students are afflicted by mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, according to the latest figures. Student suicides have reached a record level in recent years, and the number of people dropping out of university has trebled. Use of study drugs with potentially harmful side effects and investment into essay mills that produce entire dissertations for students are just a few other signs that the issue is deeper than the language of self-care admits.

Image: Unsplash/ Bethany Legg

Image Credit : Unsplash // Bethany Legg

The crux of the problem is that university education is increasingly reliant on student burnout and breakdown. Insurmountable reading lists; 24-hour libraries that encourage students to revise through the night; lack of one-to-one interaction with tutors or academic supervisors; and an increasingly commodified system that over-emphasises end results above the process of learning itself… these are just a few of the factors fuelling a crisis of anxiety, insomnia and extreme levels of stress among students. Couched in the language of self-care and re-articulated as normal exam-related nerves, however, the problem becomes an individual, rather than systemic, one.

Much has been published about the overstretched and underfunded mental health provisions at universities. This is indeed a large part of the story. For those suffering with a diagnosable mental illness, regular sessions with a qualified professional cannot be substituted for dog petting or knitting workshops. Better funding for mental health services is crucial.

Another part of the story, however, lies in a system that actively exacerbates mental health problems, prioritising reputation and money over students’ wellbeing. It would be remiss to suggest that mental illness is caused by university; its origins are far more complicated than that. But we cannot ignore the numbers. By treating students as consumers rather than members of a community, the current higher education system is creating a generation of severely anxious young people. 

Self-care activities, then, are not the solution to student burnout, and they underplay the true extent of the problem. Ministers and university officials must look instead at the cracks within the system, cracks through which so many are falling. No fun plaster can cover these up.

 Lead Image Credit : University of the Fraser Valley via Flickr




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