We need compassion in our structures


Today, 13 April, is Students’ Mental Health Day, observed to bring attention to mental health challenges among students. One third of higher education students suffer from depression or anxiety symptoms, while over half experience mental strain. We are in the middle of an acute mental health crisis among students.

This year, the theme of Students’ Mental Health Day is compassion. The campaign encourages students to be more compassionate towards each other as well as themselves. Compassion has been found to prevent burnout, anxiety and stress, which means that we can promote mental health by increasing compassion.


What is compassion?

Lately, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the actual meaning of compassion. Compassion towards others can be seen as empathy, the ability to understand other people’s feelings and actions taken for other people’s benefit. Compassion towards yourself, on the other hand, can often mean gentleness and empathy directed at yourself. For instance, have you ever stopped to think how you talk to yourself? Do you encourage yourself when faced with challenges, or do you blame yourself for failures?

Compassion towards yourself in particular is often challenging. Many find it easy to feel compassion towards others, whereas being merciful towards yourself is often forgotten. We can feel very compassionate about other people’s coping while demanding the impossible from ourselves and blaming ourselves for failures at the same time.

I have also felt that showing compassion towards yourself is, at times, even scary. While showing empathy and gentleness towards myself at the time of failure, I easily feel like I am encouraging myself towards new failures. This is, of course, not true. Self-compassion can mean that you understand your mistakes and learn from them but also accept the mistakes and refuse to wallow in them. As a result, I sometimes need to remind myself that self-compassion is more than just patting myself on the back – it can also translate into a constructive approach towards my own mistakes.


Individuals cannot be solely responsible for compassion

Individuals should not be left with sole responsibility for compassion. It is hard to be compassionate or practise compassion if societal structures do not provide any support for it. Currently, our structures are not compassionate, nor do they encourage individuals to show any compassion. Students should graduate in target time, be active and form networks. Many end up working alongside their studies to ensure their livelihood and to accumulate experience in order to get a job after graduating. Compassion towards yourself or others does not help when you are battling with subsistence or mental health, for instance. Credits need to be collected or work done to ensure your livelihood.

Mental health issues are symptomatic of the surrounding society. The structures of our society promote performance culture, which can be seen in universities being transformed into degree factories, for instance. In such an environment, and with study progress slowing down under challenges and constant pressure, is it any wonder if compassion is not the first thing we feel? Instead of the pressure to perform and strict target times for studies, students should be given the chance to fail and the space to try out new things and grow as human beings. This would provide individuals with better opportunities to show compassion towards both themselves and others.

Discriminatory structures are another obstacle in the way of compassion. Societal structures are strongly reflected in our everyday life, thoughts and attitudes. They may make you see yourself as the ‘other’, as less valuable, because you are not ‘normal’ in the framework set by the structures. The structures determine who is seen as normal: who is allowed to feel normal and who must feel like an outsider. If the structures are not built for you, it is difficult to act within them and feel compassion, as society and its structures tell you that you are, in some way, abnormal.


How can we add compassion to the structures?

  1. Ensuring students’ subsistence provides room for compassion. It is difficult to look after your mental health if you also have to worry about your finances at the same time.
  2. No to degree factories, yes to academic freedom. Students should have the opportunity to study in peace and to properly focus on their studies to ensure that they would actually get something out of the studies. The funding model for higher education institutions should take students’ wellbeing into account instead of being only based on the number of graduates.
  3. Equality into structures. Decision-making processes should be used to dismantle discriminatory structures more actively. By promoting equality, we are giving everyone the possibility of being compassionate towards themselves, while also being able to show more compassion towards others ourselves.


Students’ Mental Health Day is a great time to stop and think about our relationship with compassion. At the same time, decision-makers must wake up to the fact that the current mental health crisis among students is acute and that action for students’ mental health is needed now. We need compassion at every level of society.


Sonja Naalisvaara

Board Member (City and living, health, development cooperation)