UAE graduates at world’s top universities say stress and workload leading to burnout

Heavy workloads and fierce competition to secure jobs after graduation place strain on students

Graduates of leading universities have told of the pressures of academic life. PA
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Emirati student Salem Al Suwaidi can vividly recall the day in March when he reached his “breaking point” at one of the world's top universities.

With an end-of-month deadline for a 15,000-word dissertation fast approaching, he admits he felt exhausted and overwhelmed by the crushing pressure to succeed.

The student at King's College London decided to seek help when his academic anguish began to affect his health.

Mr Al Suwaidi, 21, said it was the best decision he had ever made.

The pressure of the workload in this last year, just really pushed me off, it was just non-stop
Salem Al Suwaidi

His actions demonstrated the importance of opening up about mental health challenges.

Last week, a review was launched into the deaths of five students — as a result of suicide or suspected suicide — between March and June at the UK's prestigious University of Cambridge.

A statement from the university's student union on July 11 said there was a “mental health crisis at Cambridge”.

“Let us be frank, one student death is too many, but the numbers we have seen in the past few months are especially troubling,” the statement said.

The university has set up a rapid incident response group, involving the affected colleges, public health experts from the local authority and the NHS, to examine the concerning spate of deaths.

Mr Al Suwaidi spoke to The National about his own struggles and sent a message to others not to suffer in silence.

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“I definitely felt burnt out,” said Mr Al Suwaidi, who completed his bachelor's degree in liberal arts with a major in politics and geography this month.

“I think the pressure of the workload in this last year, just really pushed me off, it was just non-stop, studying, catching up and working on the dissertation and doing independent research on top of all the classes.

“The support that we get at university isn't as great as it should be and it's something that we constantly talk about.”

He said he felt the pressure to perform well constantly as he was on a scholarship.

What kept him going was the bonds he had created with his peers.

The student is used to being an overachiever, having secured top grades and being voted president of his high school in Abu Dhabi.

But the relentless demands eventually took their toll.

“The academic pressure was my breaking point because it just made me overwhelmed and tired,' he said.

Making the step to seek help

“The decision to seek help was a very tough one because I felt like this was a decision loaded with pressure from society that told me I had already done so well and did not need to get help.

“I felt sick for a whole week and that's when I contacted the UAE embassy and they told me to set up a meeting, and then they would reimburse me for it. I was very fortunate.

“This goes to show that a lot of fears that Emiratis have seeking mental health support are unfounded. It was the government that helped me to seek out support.

“It's been really amazing seeking counselling and I would recommend it to everyone. Whenever juniors asked me for tips, I always told them go seek help if they needed it.

“Even if they did not feel that they needed it, I would tell them to talk to someone or set up an appointment with a counsellor just so they could keep themselves in check.

“We pay a lot for tuition, so I feel like funding should go towards subsidising counselling, psychiatry, and mental health checks and tests,” said the student who said some tests could cost as much as Dh10,000 ($2,700).

Mentoring service could help learners

Dr Jose Belda, consultant psychiatrist at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai, said students at some UK universities had to be on waiting lists before they could access a counsellor.

He recommended a strategy of introducing tutor-mentors who would act as the contact point for students and direct them to services.

“Each student should have a tutor-mentor who should be the key person to be contacted by the student if they feel overwhelmed,” said Dr Belda, a former doctor on London's Harley Street.

“We should see more of that because it would be a very good prevention strategy in terms of not getting students to the point of feeling so desperate that students see no option but taking their lives.”

Dr Belda has worked with university students in London and said many felt out of their comfort zone, lonely and struggled to adjust to a new place.

'Pressure to be perfect'

Raunak Rupani, who grew up in Dubai, says focusing on his social life and creating a strong group of friends has helped him cope with career pressures.

Indian Raunak Rupani, 26, grew up in Dubai, where he said he faced bullying at his school. He believes this in many ways prepared him for university life.

“When you juggle through those things early on in your life, you are a little bit more equipped when you move to a new stage,” said Mr Rupani, who travelled to the University of California in Los Angeles for his bachelor's studies.

Mr Rupani, who graduated in 2018, said he faced intense competition when it came to applying for jobs in the US.

“I understand the competition because as an international student to get a job in the US is very tough, because you're competing with Americans. I needed to be five steps ahead of them for someone to look at me as the candidate for them,” said Mr Rupani, who works in investment banking in Dubai.

“The pressure and the competition was very high, because everyone had the grades and the question became what did you have that would make them want to hire you.

“There was a pressure to be consistently perfect.

“The pressure we face stems from our need to meet expectations, be it our own or those of others.”

Being in a cohort where people supported each other and believed in healthy competition, helped, he said.

Mr Rupani chose an alternative path of focusing on his social life, creating a strong group of friends and building his soft skills.

He said universities needed to ensure students had freedom to be allowed to repeat a course, or back out of a course that was overwhelming them without it affecting their grades.

In the US, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24.

Nearly one in five high school pupils reported serious thoughts of suicide and 9 per cent made an attempt to take their lives, according to the US National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The suicide rate for students in higher education in 2020 in England and Wales was three deaths per 100,000 students, according to UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Keep options open

Dubai, UAE, August 20, 2014:

Rema Menon Vellat is the Director of Counselling Point. From her office in northern Dubai she meets with many different students and families to help guide them in selecting a university appropriate for each case. 

Lee Hoagland/The National

Reema Menon, director of Counselling Point, in Dubai, has coached and prepared students for universities for two decades.

Ms Menon has seen students affected by a combination of factors including academic load, moving to a new country, making new friends, and finding themselves in competitive environments.

“They start to question their capabilities and whether they have made the right choices,” said Ms Menon.

“I've had students who had to change their majors because they couldn't cope with the pressure. I ask every student that I work with to be open to change.”

She said in many communities there was a culture of not talking about mental health issues.

“They push it under the carpet and say, grin and bear and it will be fine, or just push yourself. Or they say something like it's just a phase and you can overcome this.”

She said students needed to recognise mental health conditions just as any other medical condition and seek help when it was needed.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 4:26 AM