Friday 22 September 2023 – The mental well-being of students is a top priority at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). By offering diversified and layered support, it provides every student with the appropriate help to enhance their resilience and mental well-being and thus maximise their chances of academic success. In the coming academic year, the university’s efforts include gatekeeper training for faculty, services and student associations, as it aims to evolve into a community of caring where everyone – student or lecturer, student association or welfare provider – understands and can fulfil their role.
From 2019 to 2021, the number of students who accessed the free psychological support offered by VUB increased each year. In 2019, 2,520 VUB students received guidance from a student psychologist; in 2020 the number was 3,283 and in 2021 it grew to more than 3,700. In 2022, there was a distinct turnaround, with the number falling to 2,834.
According to Rebecca Léonard, student psychologist and head of Student Support at VUB, this indicates that the taboo around psychological help is disappearing.
“There have been more and more students coming to us in recent years, not only for individual counselling but also for our workshops and self-help materials. Asking for psychological help is becoming easier to talk about, which is something we welcome. VUB has purposefully expanded its offer in recent years, leading to increased demand from the student community. Until last year, that is, because since then there has been a decline in the number of individual sessions with psychologists. We suspect that this is because we are referring students to the support they would most benefit from at the time. Personalised guidance is central to what we offer, because every request for support is different.”
The university finds that demand for individual counselling is still greater than what it can offer. Therefore, from this academic year, VUB will work with the Brussels University Consultation Center (BRUCC), its mobile centre for psychological services. This allows students to be referred more quickly to BRUCC’s front-line services.
VUB student psychologists offer each student up to eight free individual sessions. As an extra boost for the most vulnerable students and because of long waiting times for subsidised counselling services, the Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund for Students reimburses psychological help from a recognised psychologist or service for diagnostics or group or individual support.
As a caring and compassionate university, VUB strives to create an environment where every student can be themselves, while respecting the well-being of others.
“From students and lecturers to those directly involved in welfare such as student psychologists and tutors, everyone shares a responsibility to ensure student well-being,” says Léonard. “To become a community of caring, we need to raise awareness and engage the VUB community. Everyone must be able to recognise and fulfil their role. Through gatekeeper training, we strengthen the skills of student associations, teachers and services to recognise signs of emotional problems in students, enable them to talk about the issue and encourage them to seek help from the appropriate place when they need it.”
Diverse and multi-layered offer
As well as psychological support and gatekeeper training, the university has many initiatives and services to work both preventively and reactively to improve student resilience. The support is wide-ranging and includes help with studying, training to reduce fear of failure and exam stress, a well-being comic with tips for first-year students, guidance from a free student psychologist and referral to external specialised services via the Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund. Personalised guidance is central, because every request for support is different.
“The university is undertaking various initiatives to adapt its well-being policy to the changing needs of students,” Léonard says. “We take part each year in the well-being monitor organised by the Flemish government, an annual survey that asks students about their well-being. We use the data from this survey to adjust our own policy and offerings. From next semester, for example, we’re offering workshops on dealing with perfectionism.”
Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund
Financial, material, social or psychological concerns can weigh heavily on students’ mental well-being and consequently their grades.
To ensure equal educational opportunities for all students, the late honorary rector Caroline Pauwels established the Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund for Students in 2020. Money from this structural fund is used to provide students in need with the necessary support to continue their studies without these concerns. In this way, VUB ensures no students are forced out due to external problems.