Studying is prohibited here, right in the heart of the university campus. The huge white tent on Erasmus Plaza is the ideal spot for a break, where you can play table football, pool or just chill out. Or talk to someone, such as a co-student or one of the students that work there. The Living Room is there for everyone, explained Sigita Lapina (23), one of three student assistants who manage the living room. “When I came to study here, they showed me everything”, she explained. “All those lecture halls and the library, but nobody showed me where I could relax.”

Students have been able to do that since 2019 in The Living Room, which aims to offer that all important place to chill: the fresh air of relaxation among the stale odour or endless studying. The student living room is there for a reason. Students are really suffering from loneliness and depressive thoughts; problems that only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the late 2021 Mental health and drug use among students in higher education monitor from the Trimbos Institute and others, three-quarters of students suffer feelings of loneliness.

“The university also discovered that many people were feeling depressed”, explained Lapina in the living room. “That was already the case prior to the coronavirus but the pandemic increased this considerably.”

And Erasmus University is trying to address this, including by offering The Living Room. But is EUR actually responsible for its students’ mental welfare and should the university suggest solutions for this? Lapina is clear about this: “If the university is part of the reason why someone isn’t feeling great, it’s up to the university to come up with a solution.”

Learning environment

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Associate professor Marieke Meeuwisse is researching what Lapina means, although her research field focuses on a specific theme: the so-called ‘sense of belonging’ of students in higher education. There’s not really a good Dutch translation for this: “It’s about feeling recognised as a student in the learning environment”, explained Meeuwisse. “That you feel acknowledged, appreciated, seen and respected. Or, as I sometimes say, that you feel at home.” A feeling that impacts mental health.

According to Meeuwisse, EUR should aim to ensure that everyone on campus feels comfortable. “As a university, you have to ask yourself: what can we do for our students?”, she said. “And if we don’t manage to do that, we need to take a critical look at ourselves. But the context is very important.”

By this, Meeuwisse, who is also programme director of the Pedagogical and Educational Sciences Bachelor degree, means that the university needs to ensure a pleasant environment. But does that mean that a university is responsible for how all its students feel? Meeuwisse wouldn’t go that far. “We live in a big city with lots of students from different backgrounds”, she explained. “You need to look carefully at who your students are, what they need and what you can offer the different groups.”

Academic performance

Meeuwisse’s research focuses on groups and not on individual cases of students with mental health issues. They will always exist and are not the responsibility of Erasmus University. This is also the opinion of Sandra Constantinou (19), a member of the University Council and in that capacity concerned with mental health. “EUR can and wants to help you only if you have mental health issues that are affecting your academic performance”, stated Constantinou. That’s also stated on the university student psychologists’ web page: students can get help for mental health issues if these are ‘hindering study progress’. If that’s not the case, students seeking help will be referred to a psychologist outside the campus.

And although Constantinou understands that she also finds it very hard. “On the one hand it’s really not fair that you can only get help if you fail your courses”, she said. “But support from a psychologist is very expensive so if the university were to offer that to everyone, it would cost a lot of money. That’s where the dilemma lies: when do you offer enough but not too much?”

That’s a question Constantinou has no answer for. University initiatives, including The Living Room  are there to help students with their mental health. It’s now become much busier. It’s around lunchtime and lots of people on campus have free time. Lapina explained that every day some 120 students visit the living room, which is nestled between the university, the students and the support services. And that’s not only figurative, explained Lapina with a smile: “The student psychologists are over there”, she pointed towards E building. “And there’s the study advisor”, Lapina stated while turning around. “So The Living Room is nestled exactly between the two.”