Facing a mental health crisis, the university system in question

University students are worn out by a system that does not sufficiently invest in their well-being, mental health professionals explained. 

Emma Ruzzon, a 23-year-old spokesperson for Italy’s largest student association, has been in the public eye since she voiced serious concerns about a university system that undermines mental health during her speech for the opening ceremony of the academic year on 13th February at the University of Padua.

Five days before Emma’s speech, a 19-year-old student had taken her own life on a university campus in Milan. She had left a note in her purse, describing her life as a “failure”. Just few weeks after, a 27-year-old girl attending the Univerisity of Naples committed suicide. Her parents thought her ready to submit her dissertation. She could not tell them that she still had to finish her exams.

“It is a picture of a reality that hurts,” said Emma Ruzzon in Padua. Her voice firm, she spoke from a lectern on which she had hung a laurel crown with a green bow – a symbol of psychological well-being. “The choice of the speech’s subject was unanimous within our association. The mental health crisis in higher education is a pervasive topic.” she explained when interviewed.

The issue addressed by Emma is not unique to Italy, as shown by the growing number of international initiatives on youth mental health like the Healthy Minds Study (HMS). The HMS annual survey shows there has been a notable increase in the figures of students screening positive for symptoms of depression and anxiety, rising from 25% and 21% of the surveyed population in 2016 to 39% and 34% in the 2022 survey, respectively. The same study underlines how these figures represent a long-sustained trend neither triggered nor dramatically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Emma Ruzzon, the struggle of university students is a historical issue which is now receiving more attention than ever due to the attention drawn by the pandemic on psychological well-being. 

The struggle is obvious to mental health professionals and faculty. “The market rationale has infiltrated key public sectors with severe psychological consequences,” explained Céline Cantat, academic advisor at Sciences Po. Her colleague at the Parisian university’s Health Center, psychologist Arianna Sforzini, explained that university students everywhere are bombarded with neoliberal messaging prescribing success as the only possible path, which provokes distress

“Most universities in all countries echo the dominant economic structure which is extremely competitive,” added Dr. Silvia Pagani,a psychologist, who said that this pressure can lead to depression.

Among the interviewees, students, faculty, and mental health professionals alike highlighted the paradoxical discrepancy between growing demand for support and the limited capacities of psychological services on campuses. The magnitude of students’ unmet needs is often quantified as the “treatment gap” and,  according to the findings of the HMS, it persists despite the increase in the rates of treatment. Dr. Arianna Sforzini said she is eager to work to improve the situation at Sciences Po, but that “the problem is one of resources upstream”. 

According to Céline Cantat, the disproportion between students’ needs and university resources leads to a situation where “the care for students’ mental health often comes down to the personal attention of professors and the academic advisory board’s members” who nonetheless are often unable to devote enough attention to each individual situation.

In her speech, Emma Ruzzon pointed clearly at the lack of investment in student’s well-being, as she reminded her peers that it is “their right to ask for help and to require suitable structures to do so”. She called out the institutions’ responsibility to ensure economic and cultural accessibility to support tools, at least while there is no “political will to question the very hinges of a university system that generates the pressure causing this wave of discomfort”. 

Picture source : pixabay.com