University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


"Trying to fall asleep, I lay thinking about my studies for several hours.”

Well-being — It started with insomnia and exam stress. Then came heart palpitations, chronic fatigue and irritation. After a tough semester Emil is now on sick leave with a depression. And he is, by far, not the only one.

Emil Andersen can’t quite remember when it started. He believes it started some time in December 2017. He had just moved into an apartment with his girlfriend and was in the process of fixing it up while at the same time reading up on two exams.

Stressed students

According to a study from the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, 72 per cent of UCPH students have had had problems with sleep in the last semester.

73 per cent have had difficulty concentrating.

Nine out of ten felt stressed during the last semester.

One in five students have sought professional help for stress symptoms.

“I began to sleep very badly at night. You can be stressed for a period of time, and then it passes. But I could feel that I had difficulty getting out of this state again.”

Emil passed both his exams and finished the flat he was working on with his girlfriend. After the exam, his sleep went back to normal, and he began his fourth semester in history. But when he started studying for exams in the spring semester, the insomnia came back.

“I quickly returned to the same emotional state. I had difficulty falling asleep, and lay thinking about my study programme and my exams when I went to bed. There were several aspects of it. There was the exams, and I had to do the readings. But there was also what I had to choose as a supplementary subject, and all sorts of concerns about the future. It started taking over,” says Emil.

Insomnia and sleeping pills

After a couple of weeks, Emil was not sleeping at all. It was a vicious circle where he first got to fall asleep at six in the morning.

Emil spoke both with his girlfriend and with his student counsellor about his sleeping problems. The student counsellor said that it sounded like stress, but that it would hopefully pass after the examinations were over. “I slept very little during this period, and often I got up in the morning and went to lectures. Some days I tried to go to university later. But I was completely exhausted, so I didn’t, of course, get much out of the lectures.”

From April to mid-June Emil dragged himself to his study programme and passed his exams with very little sleep. He went to the doctor and got a prescription for sleeping pills, which helped him sleep until the exam period was over.

Constant fatigue

But his insomnia did not disappear when he came out the other side. He still had problems falling asleep without the help of sleeping pills.

I had this constant fatigue in my body and often had heart palpitations. I quickly got upset about trifles.
Emil Andersen, history student

“I had hoped that getting past the stressful situation would enable me to get back into a normal sleep pattern and get a normal daily life. But it just continued. I had this constant fatigue in my body and often had heart palpitations. I quickly got upset about trifles.”

Emil’s student counsellor recommended that he applied for six months sick leave. At the doctor he was diagnosed with a mild depression, triggered by stress, and he has taken sick leave until January 2019.

One in five have sought help

Emil Andersen is not the only student who has been struggling with stress and insomnia. According to a recent study from the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), 72 per cent of students students from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) suffer from sleeping difficulties, while 73 per cent struggle with poor concentration.

This, discouraging, study shows that one in five UCPH students – 20 per cent – have sought professional help for their stress symptoms.

According to both the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs and the Student Council, the problem has only got worse after the Study Progress Reform and a legal requirement for bachelor graduates to immediately apply for admission to master’s degree programmes was implemented.

Studying at home

At home in his apartment in Bispebjerg, Emil is still trying to find his feet. The last few months he has slept normally, but a number of other symptoms have turned up.

“I am often in a really bad mood, and I can become very pessimistic. I can’t really find a deeper meaning in anything, and I quickly get angry with my girlfriend. But it has helped to get a diagnosis from a cognitive therapist and learn that I have a depression. I was aware that it was probably this. But it has made it easier to handle,” says Emil Andersen.

Emil is finding a psychologist and is about to go through a course of therapy. He does a little studying every day, but is careful not to stress himself.

“It is a delicate balancing act. But I’m fine with that taking it easy, because I really needed it. I see it as an opportunity to study for a little longer. It has really stressed me out, that students have to complete their studies so fast and that they are not to take leave or a break between their bachelor’s degree and their master’s.”

How do you make sure that you are not pushing yourself too hard?

“It sounds a bit banal, but I really try to monitor my own well-being. And I try not to require too much of myself. I do not want to achieve anything right now. So if I don’t want to do something, I just let it be.”

Focus is on grades rather than ability

When asked what it is that pushed him over the edge, his response comes in two parts.

My stress is both a result of the structural frameworks that I am a part of, but also that I am very ambitious and a perfectionist, so I have pushed myself too hard.

Emil Andersen, history student

“My stress is a result of both the structural frameworks that I am a part of, where you really need to rush through your studies as fast as possible. But it is also probably due to me being ambitious and a perfectionist, so I have pushed myself too hard. This is something that is characteristic of my generation,” he says:

“We have been told we could become whatever we wanted. But what we find instead, is that we actually can’t. You can definitely feel that people have been affected by the Study Progress Reform and the new legal requirements for starting studies,” says Emil Andersen.

He does not believe however, that the study progress reform is solely to blame for the students’ high level of stress. Another factor is the performance culture and the race for grades, which is also something that exists on the history study programme:

“I wanted to be really good at what I was studying. And the only way you are assessed is through grades. As a result, there is a focus on grades in most study programmes, even though it doesn’t say anything about how you, say, develop from an academic point of view. The focus ends up being on the grades rather than the skills.”

You have to pull the plug on it immediately, and take this seriously
Emil Andersen, history student

This January, Emil Andersen intends to apply to Lund University, where he will study ethnology as a supplementary subject.

His advice to students who are in the same situation as he was last spring, is the following: Stop and take it seriously from the outset.

“You have to pull the plug on it immediately and take it seriously. I did, but I didn’t realize that it would affect me for such a long afterwards. It is difficult to know, but if I had taken my sick leave earlier, in the spring, I might have already felt better now.”