Leiden University is heading towards a mental health crisis. Over the last few years, awareness about mental health has grown in both personal and professional spheres. Institutions are increasingly equipped to deal with the challenges of mental health conditions, and in many cases this support has been effective. However, such support has been woefully lacking at Leiden University in recent months and years.
As student numbers reach 30,000, including over 20 percent international students, the university has not taken the necessary steps to increase their mental health provisions to cope with the increased demand. Leiden University will eventually have to face this reality; at the time of writing this article, only one appointment on one day was available with a student psychologist in the month of February—and no appointments were available in Campus The Hague at all.
One appointment for over 30,000 students, at the start of a new semester, is completely unacceptable. Nor is this a one-off occurrence: similar stories to this are commonplace in student life at all times of the year. Students are demanding a change in policy, and eventually, the university administration will have to listen.
The United Kingdom came to the realisation that its system had to change in 2016, when six students at the University of York tragically took their own lives. This was a pivotal moment for British universities, who immediately began to take more seriously the importance of mental health awareness in a growing and diversifying student population.
Universities in the United Kingdom are renowned for their academic rigour, much like Leiden, yet this intensity of study is recognised as often very stressful and a cause for concern for many students. This is where our university regrettably falls short.
British universities, motivated by 2016’s tragic events, have large teams of counsellors and psychologists equipped to deal with situations ranging from exam stress to chronic mental health conditions, as well as 24/7 emergency mental health support—all provided by the university as part of institutional mental health support. The London School of Economics and Political Science has just announced a record investment in its mental health services to ease the burden during January, the university’s busiest time of the year for mental health appointments. The LSE is not alone in bolstering its mental health provisions for the winter term: universities across the UK are taking similar measures to assist students returning to university with the “winter blues”.
As a councillor on the Faculty Council of Humanities, I have heard many anecdotes from students – especially those at Campus The Hague – who are deeply unsatisfied with the support networks offered by Leiden University. Leiden, as a top-flight, well-established university which attracts the brightest and best young minds from The Netherlands and the world, has a duty of care to its students’ mental health. Especially as the international community grows within the Leiden family, the system must develop to ensure that this growth in student population is sustainable.
International students have a much higher propensity to suffer from mental illness while at university than domestic students, and it is imperative that the university recognises this issue and works to make its mental health services open and available to all its students. If they continue in the same way as now, the effects on student satisfaction and the university’s reputation at large, could be catastrophic.
There are signs, though, of change. The Student Welfare Taskforce has been pressuring the university administration to make similar changes as in the UK, and the especial plight of international students is beginning to be understood (“Welkom: ‘Wellbeing officer’”, Mare, 12 December 2019). This is undoubtedly a good step, and shows that the university administration is aware of the issues being raised and receptive of students’ and staff’s calls for change.
But the fundamental, structural mental health crisis that Leiden now faces will not be solved with one more vaguely-titled assistant. The point is made by the vice-rector Hester Bijl that the university must not supersede existing mental health services, to which many will say “why not”? It is incumbent upon our university, as the first point of contact in the country for many of its students, to provide that service.
Mental health services should, for example, be proactive not reactive: many students do not have the confidence to take the first step towards seeking help, and a watertight system should ensure those students do not slip through the institutional net. The existence of Dutch private mental health services cannot and must not be an excuse for poor institutional mental health care.
The grim reality that Leiden University must face is that they will soon reach the critical mass that was reached in the UK in 2016. The University must act, now, to provide effective, inclusive, rigorous, and international student-friendly mental health services — before it’s too late.
Peter Banks is student International Studies and councillor on the Faculty Council of Humanities