Just like their coaching sessions, our interview with Djoeke en Joost is conducted through a video connection. Djoeke is talking to us from her home in Utrecht, while Joost lives in Winterswijk. Their online coaching organisation started providing coaching sessions last October, which is when they were hired. Prior to that, Djoeke was a lecturer at Utrecht University’s Psychology department for four years. For Joost, this was his first proper job after graduating from Twente University’s Positive Psychology department last summer. Together they drew up the programme for the coaching journey, which consists of five online sessions, often combined with assignments the students have to complete at home.

Looking after parents

One reason why Stoelhorst wanted to do this kind of work was his own personal experience. “Student life can be quite tough. I had some experience of that myself. While I was studying psychology, my father was involved in a serious accident. He had to undergo surgery multiple times, which meant that I had to return to my parents’ home during the course of my degree to help my parents. I really struggled with that situation and wasn’t quite sure where to turn for answers. Thankfully, I found someone in the end who lent me a listening ear – a professor who understood that I sometimes needed a little more time to complete all my exam questions’, or helped me deal with stressful situations. That’s when I realised: I want to help other students, as well.”

Joost’s father is slowly recovering from the accident. “He underwent his fourteenth surgery last week. But it looks as though he’ll be able to walk again in future.”

International students experience more hardship

Siggie, part of the Mentaal Beter organisation, performed a quick analysis of the first 100 students to sign up through the platform. It showed that international students attending EUR scored significantly lower for indicators of emotional, psychological and social well-being, and higher for indicators of depression. Women are much more likely to apply for coaching than men: 70% versus 30%. International students are far more likely to apply, as well: 54 per cent of the students receiving coaching were foreign, even though this group only makes up about 20 per cent of all EUR students.

Laughed at

Joost’s experience is just one example of the many types of problems you can discuss with him and Djoeke. “The main issue we’re coming across at present is loneliness,” says Djoeke. And Djoeke, too, has some personal experience of that. “I was still working as a lecturer when the pandemic began. At the time, the students had already got to know each other, which made online classes somewhat bearable. This year, though, students had to engage in online classes right from the start. Some students have never met any of their fellow students. They may have WhatsApp group chats and work on assignments together, but they do find it hard to get in touch with others. What’s missing is the occasions on which they would normally meet organically: waiting together for a lecture room to be opened, or walking to the coffee-vending machine together. Now you actually have to make an appointment with someone if you wish to get to know each other, which feels weird.”

Joost adds: “Students find it embarrassing to ask others to go for a walk with them or have a cup of coffee together. Many of them are feeling alone in their situation.”

Conquering those negative thoughts is a vital part of the coaching sessions. “The main thing you have to realise is that things don’t just happen of their own accord,” says Djoeke. “You have to make them happen yourself. So together we’ll try to find ways in which you can make this easier on yourself.”

Are You OK Out There?

Erasmus University seeks to help students retain or regain good mental health in several different ways. The Are You OK Out There? platform is where these efforts are concentrated. The platform provides tips, links to (online) hangouts for students and referrals to student helplines, such as Siggie’s coaches. Furthermore, study advisers, confidential advisers and the student pastor are on hand to lend students a helping hand. If you need some help yourself, go to Are You OK out there? or straight to Siggie for Students.

Breaking negative thinking patterns

“I often go over the 5 Gs with them,” says Joost. The 5 G diagram (as it is known in Dutch) is a cognitive behavioural therapy exercise in which you record events and the thoughts and feelings you had regarding those events, as well as the consequences. You then try to determine how you might be able to break those (negative) thinking patterns. “I challenge them to answer the question: will that other person really laugh at you if you ask them to go for a walk or have some coffee together? This is an example of a thought that is not helpful.”

Djoeke: “Another method is to think back of successes you obtained in the past. How did you manage to make contact at the time? Which qualities and characteristics did you use to make that happen? Once you know that, you can try to recreate the conditions leading to that success.”

“I’ve noticed that many students have low self-esteem,” says Joost. “Some students are tremendous perfectionists, and the students themselves believe EUR’s culture exacerbates this. For instance, when they are given a mark for an exam, they are given the tools to compare their own mark with their fellow students’. I can tell that some students are very sensitive to that. They want to be the best, to the point where they’re not always willing to help other students. Which can be quite shocking to them, because they don’t think that’s like them at all.”

Failure is not an option

Generally, Djoeke and Joost are getting the impression that the international students they talk to are having a harder time of it than their Dutch counterparts. Siggie drew the same conclusion after performing its analysis (see sidebar). “They often encounter multiple challenges, and it takes them longer to find their way to us,” explains Djoeke. “The lockdown is hitting them harder, because their social networks tend to be smaller. As a result, it’s less easy for them to use coping mechanisms, such as a good heart-to-heart conversation with a fellow student, or parents or relatives who can support them.”

Joost adds: “I’ve also noticed that for some international students, failure really isn’t an option. And sometimes they’re less used to openly discussing their mental health issues.”

In charge

Students should not expect their coaches to provide ready-made tips to help them get lively social lives, for example. “We want students themselves to be the owners of their solutions,” emphasises Djoeke. “They must be in charge themselves so that they will feel more empowered and confident about the future. We will help them reflect on these matters and take the right steps.” Students are offered a total of five sessions. “Afterwards I will often ask what the student got out of the sessions. So far, everyone has told me they have benefited from them. And they genuinely appreciate the personal attention we’re giving them.”

Some students’ problems are too complex to be resolved in five coaching sessions. In such cases, Djoeke and Joost will refer the students to a GP, who will then refer them to a counsellor. So far, this has happened to about 10 per cent of students who signed up for the sessions.