• First aid for depression

    ‘Sound the alarm in time!’

    From a little bit of stress caused by studying to serious psychiatric problems, Hilly Mast has seen it all since she started as the study advisor for medicine and dentistry in December 2015. Her goal: to help students with their problems. ‘The life of a student is not always a bed of roses.’
    in short

    If students experience symptoms of depression, they should notify someone about it in time, says medicine and dentistry study advisor Hilly Mast.

    People often retreat into themselves when they don’t feel right. ‘This occurs very often in the master phase’, says professor and depression researcher Marie-José van Tol.

    Approaching a study advisor is often the first course of action for students with symptoms of depression.

    There, they are given the space to talk about what is bothering them and to share their feelings. They are also given information and advice, for example about funds they can apply for to partially relieve the financial burden caused by a study delay.

    If a real case of depression is suspected, students are often referred to a professional, such as the student psychologist. The choice to seek professional medical attention is ultimately down to the student.

    The student psychologists are located at the Student Service Center (SSC). Altogether, they conduct around 900 intake sessions a year. One-third of these sessions are with international students.

    After an intake session, a maximum of up to five follow-up sessions takes place. If six sessions is not enough, students are referred to an external psychologist – via their GP – as quickly as possible.

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    Not feeling comfortable in your own skin happens to all of us. Usually it passes on its own, but sometimes, the problems linger a little longer. That is irritating enough in itself, but when it assumes more severe and prolonged forms, the social life and study results of a student often suffer. ‘You hope that a student sees this in time and asks for help’, says Mast. ‘Because realising you need help is often the first step to recovery.’


    That does not always happen on its own. People often retreat into themselves if they aren’t feeling right, and it can be difficult for others to do anything about that, as Marie-José van Tol experienced. She researches prevention of relapses into depression through preventative cognitive therapy, but she also regularly gives lectures as a university professor. ‘A while ago, I had a student who completely disappeared. And even with my experience as a professor and researcher, I did not know what to do.’

    ‘We monitor the study progress of all students’

    ‘It is a personal crisis and you want to offer support, and you want to make it manageable, but it is very difficult. Especially in the master phase, if you do not see your students as often, it occurs very frequently. They are also forced to confront themselves and they can get stuck, due in part to avoidant behaviour. This particular student had already disappeared for the second time. It would be better if you knew how to tackle that situation as a professor.’

    Study advisors

    At the RUG, there are various organisations and people who can and want to help students if they have problems. The first of these is often the study advisor. Like Mast, there are various study advisors, available at every faculty, who have an overview of the programme curriculum and are close to the organisation and students. Students often know how to find the way to the study advisor for questions or academic problems, ‘but even if they don’t do that, there are ways to signal a problem’, says Mast.

    ‘We monitor the study progress of all students. If we notice that a student is earning fewer study points and lower grades all of a sudden, we can call them in for a chat. Students are also members of tutor and coach groups. These are small groups which are supervised; here, students can talk about their studies and related topics in a safe environment. If a student has problems, a tutor or coach can advise the student to talk to a study advisor.’

    It is there that a student is given the space to talk about what is bothering them and to share their feelings if necessary. ‘We are regularly the first to hear about it and then the emotions are released’, says Mast. ‘Besides emotional support and space, we can also offer specific help so that they can find their way in the educational programme and advise them about the regulations and further possibilities within the university. In extraordinary circumstances, an appeal can be made to the student financial support fund to relieve some of the financial pressure caused by study delay or to lower the BSA norm for first year students. This is something we cannot adjudicate ourselves, but we can inform students of the possibilities.’


    ‘If we feel that it is a case of depression, we often refer students to a professional’, she continues. ‘But the decision to seek professional help is one that they ultimately have to make themselves. That is very important. We try to help them. Sometimes, they end up at the student psychologist, but in the case of more severe, prolonged problems, we refer them to their GP with the request of a referral to an external psychologist. A referral from the GP is necessary for the insurance.’

    ‘We want to get every student to the best place possible’

    The student psychologists are located at the Student Service Center (SSC), as are student counsellors. ‘They work on a more abstract level and have a more overarching role’, says Mast. ‘They know a lot about the regulations within the RUG and on the national level, such as DUO, if you have questions about student finance or paying off your student loans, for example. They deal somewhat less with personal problems. Students can pay regular visits to study advisors, but meeting with a student counsellor is slightly more formal and there is a waiting period.’


    At the SSC, around 850 to 950 intake sessions are carried out annually, a number which has been stable for years. Around one-third of these sessions are with international students, like the student in Tol’s example. ‘They are a group with their own problems’, Mast is aware. ‘It is sometimes very difficult for them as they cannot settle down in a culture. This expresses itself in their study progress and can lead to them falling into a vicious cycle.’

    The student psychologists offer easily accessible help, but it is also short in duration, says Jooske Doorenbos, head of the SSC. After an intake session – for a one-time fee of 40 euros – there is a maximum of up to five follow up sessions. ‘If we foresee that the nature of the problem requires longer or more intensive treatment than we can offer, we refer the student straight away. Of course we do this in consultation with the student, because it is him or her who has autonomy and we want to get every student to the best place possible. Our network is very important to us.’

    There are no information brochures about the possibilities concerning personal problems and depression. ‘We have a flyer containing all the services that the SSC offers, but most students find us via the website or are referred to us by their study advisor’, says Doorenbos. The fact that students retreat into themselves and do not go to a psychologist straight away is because they think for a long time ‘this will go away on its own, everyone goes through a slump at one point’. For those who worry about their classmates, she has a tip: ‘you can also very well go to one of our psychologists for information and advice!’

    More about depression

    This article is part of trio of stories about depression. Be sure to read the other two pieces from this series:

    Studying with depression – former RUG student Evi* reveals how a serious depression pushed her to the brink of death.

    The patient in the spotlight – on research into depression.