Across the world we have determined the saviour of many of our problems to be education.

The education sector boasts at being the forerunner in making a difference in the world. Charities in third world countries are established to educate the children as a way of providing the people with a better life, and in Western cultures great emphasis is placed on the wealth or economic strength of a country being directly related to the education level of its people.

Education is known to be a good thing, and we rely heavily on it to be so.

We have placed education on a pedestal, seeing it as the ultimate solution to man’s ills and suffering. Great power and pride is held by these institutions for the good that they deliver.

But what if I said the education system was making us ill; would you believe me?

A report titled Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators[1] (the “Report”) was recently published stating that conditions in higher education may be contributing to high levels of psychological distress among university students. Studies also suggest that young people attending university may be at increased risk of experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety and stress symptoms, compared with other young people in the community.[1]

For decades now, researchers have been publishing journal articles about university students and stress. Students are known to be vulnerable, under intense pressure and prone to psychopathology triggered by academic overload, constant pressure to succeed, competition with peers, financial pressures and lack of leisure and family time.[2] Despite our awareness, no change appears in sight.

The evidence base is strong and expanding and indicates that mental health difficulties are prevalent in university student populations across Australia, the UK and the USA, with four particular risk groups:

  • University students are a ‘high risk’ population for mental health difficulties; much higher than their peers in the community.

  • Commencing first year undergraduate students report less distress than subsequent year students, indicating a decline in student wellbeing throughout the course.

  • International and domestic students report similar levels of psychological distress.

  • High levels of distress have been recorded in the disciplines of science, engineering, veterinary medicine, law and the Bachelor of Arts.[3]

Whilst the stress response is necessary for life or death situations, it can make learning difficult, as the stimulated senses do not support deep learning, memory storage, self-control, impulse control and reasoning.[4] Evidence also suggests that the stress response is “detrimental in the classroom” and that the brains of students experiencing high levels of stress look and respond differently than those who are not.[4]

On the one hand we have a system that prides itself on the immense pressure of university life, to the point of even seeing it as a symbol of prestige and intelligence. It reigns supreme as it boasts to be the provider of the highest quality of learning in the world – and all for the betterment of mankind.

AND YET in reality the system is failing to foster the wellbeing of its students and is holding back millions of people around the world from achieving their true potential, and deep and true learning too. A provider of psychological problems is not something to be proud of.

Let’s take a short pause and consider for a moment those students who have not yet been medically diagnosed with a mental illness. We must ask what is the true state of their health and wellbeing? What substances, foods or behaviours do they use to get through each day? What is the quality of their relationships? And are they really coping? Because there are many students who may be ‘getting through’ but it is obvious they are not really doing ok.

So … when student psychological suffering comes to light, what do we do about it?

We escalate a flurry of programs telling students to become resilient. We offer a band-aid, push down the real systemic issues and throw the problem back on those already struggling to cope. We don’t change the way the education system teaches the students, we don’t look at our administrative models, we don’t review our teaching practices and research systems nor our course structures and requirements, and never ever do we look at our own irresponsibility and the ideals and beliefs we have each bought into as employees. No, we tell our students in an ever so subtle way that they are lacking in skills to handle what they must.

This is not a point the finger exercise, nor is it casting any blame. Our university staff are just as stressed, wired, overly burdened, emotional and driven to achieve as our students. Therefore, how can we possibly provide any true and substantial change to a system when we are living sold out to this way ourselves? How can we offer understanding about their stresses or even feel what true change is required when we are caught by the same ideals and beliefs and impose them onto others? Perhaps we can’t even see the issues because this way is simply considered to be our normal and everyday life.

Beautiful people are entrapped into believing that the way out of the mess is to strive for more of the same and to win in a system that is set up to tear them apart.

At university the struggling student is told to work harder because that’s what we do to survive as staff. We knuckle down, swallow any hurt or reactions we may have felt from the abuse and abrasiveness in this cut throat environment and we just soldier on. All the while our levels of resentment, bitterness and anger are escalating to unhealthy limits and we take this way of being home and poison our family life as well. The self-perpetuating cycle continues until a stop moment is reached, in whatever flavour that may be – an illness or disease, an accident, redundancy, loss of a relationship, broken families, stress leave, another job… or maybe we just medicate.

There is no argument that university educators, researchers and professional staff are overburdened and suffer many constraints and challenges[5] – underfunding, increasing or decreasing student numbers, mass delivery, redundancies, continually increasing workloads, insecurity, unreasonable timeframes, high pressure, high output expectations, prioritizing of research and competitiveness for grants, devaluing of teaching, and the casualisation epidemic – all which goes a long way to undermine the mental wellbeing of its staff.

All this, and the tertiary education system is still glorified as being the answer to our problems.

It is drilled into our young that if you want to have any chance of being successful in life, you need to go to university. When they arrive on our doorsteps, many feel the path ahead – this road to so-called success – and they wonder how they can possibly cope. Many drop out, feeling a sense of failure and questioning their intelligence, and we do all we can to get them back because we need the numbers.

Perhaps we need to take care what we define as successful in the sense of a ‘successful career’ or a ‘successful student’, for there are many people that appear to have made it through in life by university and society’s standards … but take a look deeper and this may not be the case if the marker is health and wellbeing or quality of relationships.

In a university system that prides itself on the intelligence of its academic educators and researchers, it doesn’t seem very intelligent at all to provide a service that causes such psychological distress.

We need people to be trained in their profession and to learn the practical and necessary technical skills to perform their roles in the world.

Yes, indeed we need to be real.

We need doctors to understand the human body, treatments and medicines too; we need nurses to be skilled; accountants to work with our businesses, look after our money and matters of taxation; we need engineers to build our infrastructure and work with nature … we need people with skills.

But we need healthy people – physically and mentally.

We don’t need doctors who are experiencing burnout to be supporting the sick, engineers making mistakes on infrastructure design that can bring harm to the community, or accountants who are not ethical with their advice or our money.

We need healthy people contributing back to society in healthy ways, but we must stop now and really question the state of being of our graduates as they enter the workforce, already burnt out in full or part from a system that has stretched them to the end of their tether. Ask any of them, and they will tell you that they are struggling to make it to the end of the line.

We should not be finding any pride at all from this kind of system. We should feel embarrassed that our arrogance has hidden the truth of what is really happening on the ground – our people are not well.

There will be no quick fix for such a mess, and it is not just about taking action … any action.

As presented by Albert Einstein, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.“ We could go further and say, neither can we be in the same driven, individualized, prestige or status-driven energy that has built the university empire to be what it is today. The root cause of the mess must be felt deep within, for until we see the depth of harm to people from our current way, and our part in it, any change will only offer more of the same dysfunction. The change we need is a true change.

So we have to admit, even with the best of intentions, we are getting it wrong.

We know the essence of education is about people, learning and evolving together, with no one person holding themselves as more knowing or more important than another. Who is the teacher and who is the student is not ever so clear in the true learning space. But to get here we must come to a place within ourselves where we can see how we have invested in and contributed towards this loveless system. This is an empowering place to be, where we can open our hearts and take the first real steps towards creating a learning environment that is true.

The Report suggests the answers rest in the provision of psychological resources, where students need:

  • an integrated sense of self (authentic autonomy)

  • strong connections with others who share their values (sense of belonging)

  • secure and loving personal relationships (relatedness)

  • experiences of being effective and able to meet the academic demands of their course (competence)[6]

Perhaps these factors are important for a sense of wellbeing, but indeed they rely heavily on the outside world to provide for us and often this is not what transpires.

  • What happens when the world around us chips away at our sense of self?

  • What happens when we don’t feel like we fit into the environment?

  • What happens when we don’t have secure and loving personal relationships?

  • What happens when we fail to meet the academic demands of a course?

The part missing from all academic discussions is the most important aspect of all.

The element that eludes most research papers has been presented strongly by Universal Medicine in all of its teachings, and that is the need for us to be governed by the loving way we feel about ourself, despite an outside world that may not confirm this so. We need to connect to our inner self and know without doubt who we really are.

It is from here that we are more able to hold a quality in our lives that deeply honours our needs and brings harmony to all we do, and only then do we begin to see life as it truly is and not collapse in mental un-wellness when the world pushes back in ways which can be supportive and evolving, or destructive by nature. From this place of steadiness and clarity, we are more able to learn what is needed to serve in the world.

There is a calling for a new learning environment whose very foundation is built inspired by love for humanity, where there is energetic integrity, equality, and the opportunity for technical learning and personal evolution too. We need our future students to bring their true selves to the fore in their careers, and truly begin to help us evolve us out of the mess here on Earth.

So, what if we raised the bar in our teaching standards and focussed unimposingly on training doctors who are healthy and aware, able to clearly feel where their patients are at and identify the energetic cause of the illness before administering any drug, treatment or surgery?

We need lawyers who are in tune with their clients and able to bring through truth and responsibility, offering legal advice without adding to the emotions, drama and hatred that can exist in court feuds.

We need engineers to build infrastructure that supports and heals the community in truth, and a united team to work together to complete the construction process, inspired by a deep sense of community.

And we need educators to mentor those from their knowledge and lived experiences, to support our students to learn what they need to learn but in such a way that does not diminish their wellbeing. How this plays out would be incredible to explore!


So perhaps the responsibility and the answer rests with us all – educators, researchers, professional staff, students, Government departments, a whole sector. As presented by Serge Benhayon, the quality of regard and decency must be the lowest denominator in all of our relationships and we must deal with our hurts, ideals and beliefs in order to find our true way. We must change the quality of our lives starting with how we are with ourselves, by dealing with all that chips away at us to lose our connection with our self, leading to the psychological stresses that we know without doubt exist, and that are fostered within the walls of the university.

For until we see our responsibility for the mess, we will never make true change that holds the level of integrity required.

There is no doubt that our students have a part to play, for ultimately each of us has a responsibility to provide the love and care for ourselves that we often demand from all others.[7] When the pressure is on it calls upon us to bunker down and deepen the way we nurture ourselves, but many students start to eat poorly, study into the night, fail to organise their time, plagiarise the work of another, party harder, attempt to ‘wing’ that grade and lag in doing the work required. This all creates additional burden, in an environment which is burdened enough.

There is great pride held in these education institutions that promote themselves as good, but is this pride (or arrogance) keeping our eyes closed and our awareness subdued so that we don’t feel the true harm of what is really going on? Is university really offering good and true care to humanity, because when we look at the state of play, the body speaks louder than words.

References:

  • [1]

    Baik C, Larcombe W, Brooker A, Wyn J, Allen L, Brett M, Field R and James R, 2017, Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators, Australia, 3 cited at www.unistudentwellbeing.edu.au

  • [2]

    Tosevski D, Milovancevic M and Gajic S. (2010) Personality and psychopathology of university students. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 23: 48-52

  • [3]

    Baik et al (2010), p4

  • [4]

    Levy, L (2014). How Stress Affects the Brain During Learning. Edudemic connecting education & technology. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from http://www.edudemic.com/stress-affects-brain-learning/

  • [5]

    Baik et al (2017), p 10

  • [6]

    Baik et al (2017), p4

  • [7]

    Savins M and Lake N, (2016) Transitioning to University: the engineering students’ struggle. 27th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education: AAEE, cited at http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=697840483787703;res=IELENG;type=pdf

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TeachersUniversityEducationMental healthBurnout

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