…the stress levels at the universities can become pretty intense.
Schools on alert for warning signs of strain
Their counsellorsand staff keep alookout for students with problems
Wednesday • March 4, 2009
WHETHER :Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student David Hartanto Widjaja had felt weighed down by a glitch in his final-year project, or by the loss of his scholarship, his suicide after stabbing his: project supervisor had many abuzz about how stressed tertiary students here are — on occasion, to breaking point.
:As schools told :Today:, they have measures in place for students’ mental and emotional needs. These including counselling centres on campus, hotlines manned by students, and faculty members who look out for warning signs.:
:In the case of the Singapore Management University (SMU), such frameworks proved of critical help in at least one instance. “Last year, we had a suicidal student who came to the centre for help,” said SMU university counsellor Timothy Hsi. “At the same time, his professor had noticed that he was missing classes and he also alerted the school administration to alert me to this student.”
:Counselling helped the undergraduate cope with his problems and stay in school.
The signs of a student needing help are common — those easy for a faculty member to spot include students skipping classes, and a drop in quality of work, said Ngee Ann Polytechnic student care and counselling manager Ms Ching Pui Fan. “Also, they may become withdrawn, not sleep enough and lose their appetite.”
In Mr Widjaja’s case, he had reportedly stopped contacting friends the week before he ended his life.
Yesterday, NTU president Su Guaning said the school would guide professors on detecting worrying signs: “We need to look very much at pastoral care for students, but you need a balance — you need to be caring without being stifling and they need to be learning to fend for themselves, without feeling that they need to take care of all problems by themselves.”
The National University of Singapore holds workshops for faculty members, administrative staff and hostel resident staff, on identifying students in difficulty.
Foreign students, in particular, may feel the strain more, with the need to adapt to a new culture and having left friends and family behind, said Mr Hsi. This is particularly so in the first three months of an academic year — when the number of students approaching counsellors tends to rise.
“This is why in our student hostels for international students, we have resident seniors who are students trained in some basic counselling skills to help,” he said.
Both the Management Development Institute Of Singapore and Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) also make an extra effort for their international students. SIM, for example, introduced a peer support programme where senior students are on hand to practical and emotional help.
The critical final year
For students doing their final-year projects, the pressure to meet deadlines can make even the smallest setback hard to take. Mr Bernard Tay, 27, recalled that when working on his final-year project as an engineering student: “The mentality is that after working hardand studying for something like 25 years, to trip at the final hurdle, it would mean a lot.”
On top of that is the pressure to find a job upon graduation — not easy in theseeconomic times. “Your experiment might not be working out, and then you are not hearing anything from companies after interviews — it can be hard to take,” said Mr Low Yi Guang, 25, a final-year student at NTU.
NTU associate professor Michael Heng, who teaches management at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said the stress of a final-year project could also be brought on by other factors. “In the past, I had a case of two very upset students because they could not get along.”
He added: “As professors, we want to bring out the student’s best potential, but you also need to know when to stop pushing.”
It boils down to friends
At the polytechnics, each student is assigned a counsellor or mentor for the entire three years at school — as the biggest cause of stress for most students is the transition from secondary school.
“Our poly has about 15,000 students, 10 times more than a secondary school, the timetable is very different and they may start school without the support of friends,” said Singapore Polytechnic student counsellor Lee Ee Tat.
SIM University head of programme for counselling Cecilia Soong said adult learners also face work stress and often have families as well. Students have walked out of classes and yelled, to let off steam.
At NTU, Dr Su said NTU would review its “detection framework”. “We need to reach out a little more, because sometimes (students) don’t reach out at all, and they have a shell around them,” he said, noting that Mr Widjaja’s actions came as a shock even to his closest friends.
Ultimately, Dr Soong felt, the first safety net should be one’s friends. “Especially during exam period, it’s easy to become oblivious to your friend’s problems, but you should always make time to reach out if you think something is wrong,” she said.