A while back, I watched the documentary ‘Pretend Student'. For those of you who haven’t seen it: a number of former students talk about how for years they convinced the people around them that they were still studying, even though they had quit their studies some time ago. We know of course that students sometimes take a break from their studies, even though they continue to be enrolled, but the fact that there are students who haven’t studied for years and kept it a secret from the people around them, was an eye-opener to me.

It broke my heart to hear these ‘ghost students’ talk about how they kept up this charade for so many years. During the filming of the documentary, a number of them still hadn’t informed their parents. A young man also kept the fact that he had quit his studies a secret from his housemates for a long time. He would leave the house at set times, but at the same time he was very worried that he might run into his sister, who lived in the same city. It’s almost impossible to imagine how he kept up with all the daily lies about his life and how he managed to deal with the constant stress that this brought about. He became increasingly socially isolated and depressed.

I truly hope that a large number of students saw this documentary (only in Dutch unfortunately, ed.) too, and that its message came across: don’t keep your feelings and your secret to yourself. Things are much bigger and worse in your head than they are in reality; your parents and friends will only be upset about the fact that you’ve been unhappy for so long and that you were afraid to speak up sooner.

I hope that students who feel out of sorts for one reason or another know that they can talk to someone at the university. They can always ask their department’s academic advisor for help; this person can lend them a listening ear, support them and coach them if necessary. Some students think that they can only approach an academic advisor when they expect to fall behind with their studies, but that’s a misconception! Together with the student, an academic advisor can determine the support need and send the student to the right person for help.

Students regularly tell me that they prefer to solve their problems themselves first, which is why they come to me relatively late. This behavior is praiseworthy in itself and very understandable. When you enter the university as a (young)adult, you probably want to show that you’re independent and self-reliant. This can lead to the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. And who wants to be weak? Interestingly, most people who hold this belief are glad to help others. In this case, they don’t seem to think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, that belief apparently only applies to themselves.

But I believe that asking for help when you’re not doing well isn’t a sign of weakness at all. You take the responsibility to take care of your mental well-being, and you approach others who might be able to help you. To me, that’s a sign of strength.

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