“The Attendance Policy Can Be Helpful for People Struggling with Mental Health”: Interview with AUC’s Student Life Officer Lisa van Berkel

Interview by Levin Stamm

Collage by Levin Stamm

On the grass patches in front of AUC’s academic building (AB), a few students enjoy the long-awaited warm temperatures and sun – a real treat after months of strict COVID-19 restrictions in combination with the harsh Amsterdam winter that took a heavy toll on students’ mental health.

The good mood is not only noticeable among the students. On the third floor of the AB, student life officer (SLO) Lisa van Berkel smiles as she opens the door to her little office for an interview with The Herring. Later she will say that the last weeks and months have been hectic and that the intensive period now finally gives her a little more space to breath again.

The sunny weather and cheerful mood do not take away from the tense atmosphere that shapes the relationship between students and management these days. In the following hour, a conversation about the attendance policy, COVID-19 and the need for a therapist at AUC will unfold.

The Herring: A lot of students are currently discontent with the AUC management. Do you have any idea why that could be?

Lisa van Berkel: There are always a lot of reasons, but I have heard a lot of students talking about how they are not happy about the attendance policy coming back.

Many students still feel the toll of the pandemic, even though the need to act over COVID-19 may not be as urgent anymore. They feel that their mental health might worsen with the strict attendance policy. What are your thoughts on that?

For students struggling with their mental health the reinstatement of the attendance policy may feel like added pressure. But even if the policy would be enforced again next September, or even the semester after, it would probably still get the same type of reactions. So I have very two-sided feelings on it, because I also understand the reasoning from the management’s educational perspective.

Strictly from the perspective of mental wellbeing: Do you think that the attendance policy is damaging?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be damaging. For some people with mental health issues, it can also be very helpful to have a strict schedule and to have to be somewhere at a certain time. That really depends on what someone is going through. For example, for people suffering from depression, having a dog can be very helpful, because it forces them to go outside and walk the dog. I know, it’s not the same as being forced to go to classes, but things that give structure can be helpful.

Is AUC’s attendance policy flexible enough in accommodating people who struggle mentally?

There is the option to get an exemption through the Board of Examiners (BoE) if there is proof of a pre-existing condition that shows that someone has no choice but to be absent. So there is a way – maybe it is not the easiest one. I also guess that they don’t want to make it too easy to prevent that students abuse the policy.

Right now, it seems like we have left the pandemic behind us. Does the pandemic continue to impact the workload of the SLOs?

It has definitely increased our workload. The pandemic is also one of the reasons why I am here, as AUC decided to hire a second SLO during that period. I have observed that those prone to develop mental health issues started experiencing them during the pandemic. Being in isolation, not having the social life that students had expected before coming to university – I’m sure that made a big impact.

What are the reasons that make students reach out to you most often? 

Topics that are connected to anxiety, depression. We also talk to students if a request to the Board of Examiners (BoE), for instance for a course-load reduction, may be necessary. In essence, we encourage students to also talk to their tutor about this.  However, usually students need a supporting note from a professional and if someone for example doesn’t have a therapist, the SLOs can provide this. Additionally, we also receive a lot of people who would like to start seeing a therapist and do not know how that works. So we try to explain to them what their options are, and what the steps are to schedule the first visit. The Dutch system can be difficult to navigate through, especially for international students. Also insurance-wise it’s more complicated for them. 

Next to Aino Kekkonen (currently on maternity leave and represented by Fili Dianellou), Lisa van Berkel has been one of two permanent student life officers at AUC since April 2021. Born in the UK, she grew up in the Netherlands and earned her BA in Psychology and MSc in Clinical Psychology from Utrecht University. Travelling around the world after her graduation, she returned to work as a psychologist in the clinical field and has specialised in counselling ever since.

What exactly is the problem with the Dutch health care system?

The amount of steps. If you want to see a psychologist, for example, you first have to go to a general practitioner (GP) to get a referral. Then you have to sign up for a practice somewhere, which also requires a lot of steps. This can be quite overwhelming, especially if you are already not feeling well. And even though we encourage many first-year students during introduction week to register with a GP, many don’t have one by the time they try to see a psychologist. So they will additionally have to go through this process.

What is the easiest way to get a GP?

There are always the UvA doctors. Every student can easily sign up through an online form. And if a student still doesn’t manage to find a GP, they can always reach out to us for help.

Concerning the arrangement of a meeting with the SLOs: Students lament that the available meeting slots are often booked weeks in advance. Is that not discouraging for students seeking help?

This happened because Aino (Kekkonen, AUC’s other SLO, ed.) had to leave on her parental leave earlier than expected. So then all of a sudden I was by myself. And yes, students did have to wait longer before they could get a meeting during this period. But now Fili, Aino’s replacement has started, so we were able to resolve this issue. With the SLO booking system, you can only book 24 hours in advance, but students can also always send a short note to the SLO email and we can see if we still have some space in our schedule. And even if that is not possible – usually we are able to offer a meeting time within the same week or the week after that.

Another thing is that getting an appointment with one of the UvA psychologists often takes weeks. Did you consider hiring a full-time psychologist at AUC?

It has been talked about in the past. But because there are the resources of the UvA and the VU, plus the SLOs here, it has been decided not to hire a specific psychologist. All current SLOs have a background in psychology. Hopefully, this might ease the minds of the students a little bit.

Are you allowed to do psychological counselling?

No, we do not give actual therapy. 

Wouldn’t that exactly be valuable to have as another resource – a therapist?

I think I understand where the question comes from. But if the UvA psychologists have long waiting times, AUC students can also reach out to the VU psychologists. 

The waiting time for VU psychologists is the same, though.

Spread your chances, I’d say.

We are a small-scale university. One psychologist could already make a big difference. Don’t you think so?

It could be useful. With the SLOs we already offer quite a lot. But yes, no therapy.

You do not think we need therapy at AUC?

I find that very difficult to evaluate, as I have never had this conversation with the management team. The university is an educational institution and therefore we are unable to provide long-term (mental) health care. If a student really needs to or has the wish to find therapy, the best way is to reach out to a GP and get a referral. The student psychologists are also mainly there to help out with study-related issues. I think it also has to do with the resources that are at AUC’s disposal, money-wise and logistically. But I don’t know what the exact arguments behind this decision are. 

So the SLOs are not involved in this discussion? 

I briefly talked about it with the senior tutor (Huan Hsu, ed.). He mentioned that before I joined AUC, this question had already been asked to the management team. So yes, that is all I know. 

Another topic that often leads to heated discussions at AUC: Students with learning difficulties criticise that every semester they are forced to go to the lecturers and re-announce what learning difficulties they have. Would it not be a relief for them if they could delegate this task to someone – to the SLOs, for example?

Official accommodations go through the BoE, so through the service-desk. And if those get approved, every teacher is notified about the student’s accomodation at the beginning of the course. If it doesn’t go through the BoE, students can come to us and we can help them to reach out to their teacher – but they obviously are not obligated to do so.

In case a student believes that their teacher has unfairly denied an extension, can they come to you for help?

That has never happened to me, but I would offer to get in touch with the teacher. Or I would also advise them to go through the BoE, as it has the authority in those matters in the end, not the SLOs.

Looking forward, do you have any ideas that you would like to implement at AUC for the next academic year?

We would like to continue encouraging students to sign up for GPs. And we would really like to continue our collaboration with outside organisations like Our Bodies Our Voice (a non-profit foundation fighting sexual violence at Dutch universities, ed.) to make our university safer and healthier.

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