Stress Workshop at University Underscores Need for Support for Youth

January 13, 2020

SEED Foundation visited students at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr (UKH) to discuss the importance of stress management, especially during exam periods. The two hour workshop was given by SEED’s Mental Health Technical Advisor, Anne Lepelaars, a trained psychologist from the Netherlands, and a local psychologist. The workshop tackled general stress management, how stress influences the nervous system, emotions vs. feelings, how to cope better with stress and related challenges, as well as avenues for support for students or others who think they may be in need of mental health support. 

Regionally, the Middle East has a shortfall of mental health education, support, and providers. The issue of getting help for mental health or managing stress is often shrouded in “shame” or considered “taboo” according to many students. Most of the students were in their first year of study and despite these taboos many of them expressed that they had experienced symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One 18 year old student at UKH and Erbil native said that he found the event “useful, cool, and relaxing” and added “mental health is a really sensitive subject that is not taken care of in our society. People usually don’t care about it, not our parents, not anyone. They don’t care about those issues, especially if they don’t think they have any problems, then they won’t think about it.” 

Lepelaars and one of SEED’s psychologists taught the students a variety of techniques for stress management like bilateral stimulation — a stabilization technique that often involves a person with stress crossing their arms and tapping the left side of their chest or arm with their right hand and alternating vice versa. Additionally, the students participated in exercises like chair yoga, mindfulness, breathing, meditation, relaxation, and grounding. About half of the participants said they had done some sort of yoga or meditation previously, and many found the event’s techniques very relaxing.

Lepelaars said: “It’s about them, they get to decide what works best for them. We set treatment goals together with the client. And we work with local staff who are very aware of local traditions but also have the international evidence-based knowledge about what works best. They combine both to come to the best approach.”

Another 20 year old student explained why she wanted to attend the session: “I suffer from depression, so I wanted to give it a try. I have been to a lot of psychiatrists; I take pills for depression. But this was so different compared to others because most psychologists or psychiatrists here say ‘Just take the pills and you’ll be alright.’ But then there was no one to just talk to you and explain everything logically and teach you how to do yoga and stuff like meditation. Yes there’s YouTube, but no classes [about meditation] here.”

Students also raised the issue that they found it difficult to talk to their parents about mental health issues, saying that the generational gap was an issue. Parents were said to often place extra pressure on their children to get high grades in order to secure good jobs and brush off their children’s concerns as ‘nothing to worry about’.

“Telling someone not to worry [a common refrain in Kurdistan] is very ineffective and worsens the situation for most of us. It makes you feel incapable, as if it is your own fault that you are affected by what you are facing. It is of utmost importance that we are allowed to share our feelings and concerns without being judged and that we normalize the fact that life includes suffering. Only then these students will feel supported and can learn how to better cope with problems”, said Lepelaars. 

Students participated in the activities and by the end of the workshop, many felt more comfortable doing the meditation and grounding exercises. This shift in acceptance of a new activity at the individual level after initial reluctance mirrors acceptance of new trends and practices in most societies. SEED was encouraged by the positive feedback after the presentation. Several students wanted to self-organize a meditation group or club at the university. 

*Name and minor details have been changed to protect client confidentiality