Covid 19 Critique & Inspiration Education Focus Front Page

Sick from Studying in the Neoliberal University

How neoliberalism is affecting students' mental health.


By Thea Yan Pan
Cover Illustration: Emma Skov

The pandemic did not pause my college assignments as it did many other social activities. By June, I still had essays to finish for different courses even though I had been writing essays on and on for a few months, “producing up to no less than 15 academic writing pieces. The act of writing essays is crucial for my studies since they will be reflected in the credit and grades I receive, and my graduation depends on the numeric assessments. So I tried to do as instructed, and felt smart about myself when I got a good grade for an essay. However, after some time, I started to feel an emptiness in writing essays only for recognition from a faculty member. I increasingly feel that my education is slipping through my hands, and my learning is meaningless in the face of the predefined writing assignments.

As I struggled to write an essay for one of my classes, I decided to reflect on these internal psychological pains (anxiety, stress, depression), and a sense of hopelessness that has been accumulating and haunting me throughout the past few months. These feelings erupted loudly in the special conditions of quarantine. In this essay, I attempt to make sense of falling into depression as a Master’s student in a health insensitive society and an increasingly neoliberal university before and during the pandemic. 

Brewing crisis, pre-pandemic

Pre-coronavirus pandemic, my life and studies were falling into a health and existential crisis, and I was trying to save it. For the first time in my life, I was battling with mental health due to a high level of stress that I could not deal with properly. I felt I was increasingly becoming a stranger to myself, to the reasons and meanings of my existence. I felt alienated and lost, and this really surprised me. My sense of crisis was centered around the internal landscape of my mind, heart, and my sense of control over my physical environments and the social relationships – that is, my freedom. This realization of the crisis happened around Christmas and the New Year when I spent a good deal of time in the solitude of a dark Nordic winter. 

During the New Year, the coronavirus epidemic broke out in China, and the worst situation followed quickly within a few weeks in early January. I had returned to university and started my studies again with long class hours every day. During the class breaks and in the evening, I would look into the news and social media posts to learn about the situation in China. Videos of medical staff crying, patients dying in large disposable bags packed in vans; dramatic fights between Wuhan and non-Wuhan Chinese over boarding planes for each of their own interests; rumors of burying fields burning so many bodies that the Wuhan sky was filled with the smoke of the dead; images of lockdown across the country, from remote villages to the megacities; stories of entire families getting infected and dying before they could be transported for hospital medical care; vlogs of Chinese and foreigners recording the lockdown situation and their hopes for the nation.

It was the first time that I saw my country in the light of a disaster in my adulthood. It was the first time I observed the disaster from afar. What was happening in China shocked me, and my heart was wrenched by the ongoing incidents there.

Mid-January, 2020. The reality of my life in Oulu, Finland, places me in a dissonant situation, as people around me were unaware, or unaffected by the situation. Life here moved at the typical pace of student life, in a highly comfortable university and a high volume of school work –  it did not relate so much to what was happening in my culture. I grieved and feared with my fellow Chinese people, while I stressed, and adapted to challenges from a fully packed study schedule. There was a split of my heart and body, each tapping into different lived past and present realities. The unresolved existential crisis I had been dealing with, collided with the very real public health crisis unfolding back in China. It was hard to reconcile a descending self and a descending national disaster in the face of the demands and responsibilities from my regular studies. That was when I felt waves of uncertainty and chaos pummel me, crushing the order and control I had previously established: my mind destabilized, motivation quivered, hope disintegrated, and purpose lost.

Health in public discourse

Is it a coincidence that I started to take notice of my (mental) health issues just as the pandemic descended?

Until the recent past, I had been ashamed and fearful of confronting the challenges to my psychological well-being, feeling such matters to be excuses for the weak: I am a strong woman with ambition and motivation to work hard and deliver impressive results! Mental health problems are not something that would be associated with me. Not only for mental health, but I also refused to acknowledge problems with my physical health.

However, I noticed a shift during this pandemic. When the public’s central focus is on health and well-being, when talking about health and staying healthy has become a real priority, I started to feel safe and comfortable thinking about my own health and well-being.

I cannot help but wonder, before the pandemic: what silenced me? What made me feel ashamed when thinking about my own health? Perhaps I did not feel encouraged or inspired to consider my health, or to do anything to preserve it while carrying on other activities. Only my parents, who are always careful and concerned with my health, would remind me from time to time to take care of myself and to do exercise regularly. 

Is it that the society at large, in its normal routine and functions, does not care about the health and well-being of individuals? Are we all so conditioned to work and study for the sake of the socially and economically constructed goals in the complex systems of competition and development? Why is it that topics of health are so lacking and uninspiring in the discourse in education and work? Granted that a human being does not just get sick all the time and we don’t need to talk about health all the time to prevent us from getting sick; however, there are various dimensions of health, mental health, physical health, emotional health, financial health, etc., that need to be nourished and supported so that we might have holistic well-being and further happiness. 

What I experienced pre-pandemic was that people could show understanding towards others who are not healthy, that they would wish unhealthy people to get healthy soon in order to participate in study activities again. The news of other people’s ill health tends to be sudden surprises. I remember hearing a classmate talk about her diagnosis of depression only after she had been diagnosed and made study break arrangements.

When someone is sick or unwell, it is also generally the individual’s responsibility to get well again (in Finland there is a better public health system of care and treatment compared with many other countries) to help people get well when they are sick. People from social networks do not necessarily play a role to help improve a person’s well-being, other than giving encouraging and kind words as any reasonable people would do to people who are in difficult situations. And those who are sick temporarily, like myself, would feel a certain degree of guilt and anxiety of falling behind and losing time that I could have used to perform. So sometimes I hear stories of classmates working hard even though they are sick just to finish school work on time. Others would look at them with admiration and acknowledge such actions are correct and rightful. I found out that it is rare to have conversations about health without relating it to recovery, re-participation to normal activities, or prevention of unhealthiness.

Being in Finland, some say it is a little different here because of the Finnish social welfare system which is based on taking care of people and fostering their well-being. Notably, well-being is also one of the main values in Finnish school education. But is health conceptualized as a resource that can be fixed, renewed and consumed, extracted, or as an end of its own that is integral to human’s happiness? 

Capitalism contradicts with mental health

In order to make sense of my experience, I try to understand how “mental health” is framed and instructed to us in the modern-day advanced and unequal capitalist societies. David Matthews, a researcher in social policies and health, has written a few pieces for Monthly Review where he writes about the interlinked relations between mental health and the monopoly capitalistic system. In his article, Capitalism and Mental Health(1), Matthews links the work of Fromm, Freud, and Marx to make sense of the larger social, political, and economic structures that lead to the mental health predicament, suffered by more than three million people worldwide. Mental health is the symptom of modern people being alienated or constrained by capitalist modes of production and consumption, that they struggle to reach towards their essence, their human nature, and their transcendental needs. According to Fromm, these are rootedness and a sense of belonging, relatedness, sense of identity, and mind frame to make sense of the world. When we as humans cannot satisfy our higher needs that are essential to us, we would experience various forms of mental illness, including anxiety, depression, feelings of emptiness and meaningless. This speaks to the fact that there exist great contradictions between capitalism’s operations, and human needs and happiness. 

Capitalism has taken different forms throughout time and in different social contexts. For the working-class people, Matthews uses the concept of alienation to reveal the grueling impact of the production process that “separates human existence and essence” as workers do not own or relate to their own work on the production line, instead, working is repetitive, brainless, dehumanized, and monotonous. These working conditions estrange the workers from their own labor, themselves, and the world around them. 

Neoliberal universities and students’ mental health

As a Master’s student at a research university situated in a welfare state Finland, I apparently do not perform the same kind of work as a ‘worker’ would do. But yet, I could relate to the sense of alienation theorized, and felt by the working people. This is because the neoliberal universities increasingly subject students to prescribed performative values, structuring education into manageable, predictable and profitable procedures and training, at times even compelling professors to act in accordance, even if they’d rather not, since their department’s funding is often tied to the graduation rate of their students. Students are performing the labor of the mind within strict parameters towards predefined outcomes in highly guarded mega institutions. While the system of degrees and titles earned through education does have practical value, higher education has been stripped of its potential for cultivating the unpredictable, holistic aspects of human development, as well as for providing critical, creative avenues of learning for emancipation and social good. There is a strong correlation between this trend of education and students’ suffering from mental health.

The rise of neoliberal universities took place at the backdrop of capitalism’s social-political-economic-philosophical foundations shifting from liberalism towards neoliberalism. Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters(2) wrote eloquently on the relationship between neoliberalism and the changes that happened in higher education since the 1980s, marking a stronger emphasis on higher education’s performativity, quality assurance, efficiency management, and international competitiveness. Higher education has also been lifted to new high grounds for its desired contribution to national economic development. This means that higher education shoulders heavier tasks than ever to produce economically sound results, usually through making research profitable in the business world.

Additionally, the state ensures that higher education graduates have the capability to contribute to economic growth, by forging a new identity for students that is entrepreneurial, competitive, and self-motivated. Olssen and Peters specify the role of the state in that it differs from the liberal state, which “represents a negative conception of state power in that the individual was taken to be freed from the interventions of the state”, and without which the spontaneous order (equilibrium) of the market will form. The neoliberal state, on the other hand, “represents a positive conception of the state to create appropriate private markets.” The state is productive and deliberate in constructing a market order. And the market order is still deemed as the best technology for the highest efficient functioning of social systems.

The neolibearl state asserts its power of control into traditional realms that liberalism protects–epitomized by personal freedom and autonomy–extracting “compliance from individuals in order to engineer a market order” through systems of institutional governing. Such neoliberal governmentality is marked by inscribing new notions of freedom, entrepreneurialism (that is appropriated for the purposes of this system), competition, and individual choice into people’s consciousness through its series of techniques such as “auditing, accounting, and management”. In this context of the state’s productive governmentality, the universities are pressured to live up to management results as rational homo economicus. The stakeholders in the universities, and including students, are conditioned to perform and compete with one another.

Michael Priestley (2019), a Ph.D. student studying the political economy of student mental health and well-being, claims that it is the “neoliberal higher education, not the individual, that is sick.(3) Priestley disentangles the socio-political dimensions of, and interrelationships between, neoliberal higher education policies and students’ mental health. He uses a Foucauldian conceptual framework for analysis: there is a discursive structure of mental illness which is the dominant neoliberal discourse of rationality and irrationality, morality and labor, tying a person’s moral condition and rationality to how much they can work and adopt economic rationality. 

Further, what’s at stake is how neoliberalism constructs students’ subjectivity through a discourse-truth-power-subject framework. The discourse mentioned above are presented as truths, and it (re)produces neoliberal power relations through educational policies which are “centralized around two themes: competition and financialisation”. Students are then imposed upon neoliberal policies and subjected to internalize the discourse-truth-power as their subjectivity.

The rise of tuition fees, for example, is a tool of neoliberal policy that “subjects students to debt, financial insecurity, and low standards of living that are strongly associated with depression and anxiety.” The hidden mechanism at work is the internalization of neoliberal discourse and policies of competition, exchange of (knowledge) capital, and performativity.

When education has become a commodified lever for individuals to gain (human) capital for free-market competition in the knowledge economy, students see the value of education as intrinsically linked with its capital value in the job market. The ways students value education will be judged by its “capital exchange value within neoliberal competition”. Further, students’ sense of self-worth, ‘purposes, decision and social relations’(4) are determined by their matching or not to the neoliberal policies requirements. Such requirements can be found in academic assessment measures, scholarship schemes, and credit systems. Students are increasingly telling themselves to work towards these requirements and achieve perfection, even when they are loaded with anxiety, intense workloads and lacking self-care. Many students suffer from anxiety and depression then, driven by the internalized idea to perform and achieve the image of a motivated, responsible and entrepreneurial self.

The neoliberal subjectivity of students can be seen from my experience at University of Oulu’s Ambassador Program. The program is designed for and targeted heavily towards international students. As universities are entering global rankings where indexes rely on how internationalized a university and the number of international students. Around 2/3 of the posts on the university’s official Instagram are created by international students for international students. In the training session, international students were encouraged and told to only paint positive pictures of their study and life in the university. This can include their academic achievements, fitting into the Finnish societies, and impressive social lives. While in fact, many international students suffer from various obstacles and challenges: from the initial phase of getting a residence permit, paying a rather high tuition fee and living expenses, and studying under much higher pressure than local students just to ensure that scholarship will be awarded to them. All of these obstacles are significant factors that can affect students’ happiness and mental health, but are covered up by positive representations of students’ experiences. And in fact, international students cannot practically ponder on or be hindered by these obstacles, because they can easily face suspension from the program or scholarship plan if they fail to meet all the requirements imposed on them. There has always been this invisible yet tangible fear of threat among all of my international student friends, especially those who are non-EU citizens.

Mental distress is often a consequence of “oppression and discrimination, with ethnic minorities having to suffer greater levels of social and economic inequality and prejudice”(5). Economic inequality and socio-political inequality, coupled with the implementation of neoliberal policies and subsequent alterations to lived experience, has led to mental health issues for many international students. This is a fact I found out only when I visited the University’s Health Center and requested to see a psychologist. The nurse there told me that many international students have come to visit the psychologists and seek help.

But is seeing a psychologist truly helpful?

Priestley argues that the common way of framing and addressing mental illness is inherent to neoliberal functionality. Here we need to understand the impact and reach of neoliberalism, that is it not just an ideology or structure in the political, economic realm, but it refers to the “entirety of human existence”, and that neoliberalism is “not just a manner of governing states of economies, but it is intimately tied to the government of the individuals, to a particular manner of living”(6). In this sense, the neoliberal ideology penetrates all spheres of life and governs our daily experience so that we could come to accept neoliberalism as the common-sense way to live.

Mental illness is a psychological technology for neoliberal governmentality and subjectification. Priestley argues that “discourses of mental illness are (re)cited to naturalise and individualise the social ills of neoliberal capitalism”, and that even “certain conditions of depression and anxiety [are] necessary to sustain and ‘(re)produce’ … the ideal ‘docile and capable’”(7).

Such analysis speaks to the experience I have had when I reached out to my peers, study psychologists, and faculty to talk about my lack of motivation, anxiety and symptoms of depression. The reasons I have been given for my mental state have largely been attributed to personal issues and responsibilities, that my expectations were too high, I was not managing my time well, I should make certain changes to my approach to social life and studies, I can try to take some medicines to alleviate anxiety, etc.. These narratives centered around individual choices and medical treatments, sometimes miss the socio-political dimensions of the problem, and fall into the trap of neoliberal consumption: bandaid like quick fixes that leaves structural issues of neoliberal capitalism unchallenged and unchanged.

How to be happier

What can a person do when the institutions around us (i.e. universities) and economic life (i.e. in work places) do not support the development of our well-being and happiness? And especially in a time of a global coronavirus pandemic. We may think of care as a potential avenue for solutions.

The reality is that in today’s capitalist hierarchy of labor, care workers (those who care for people in vulnerable situations through personal interactions and emotional commitment) are not highly valued in both social and economic terms(8). There is a large deficit of care to people who suffer mental illness, burnout, and hyperproductivity from their work and studies. Hobart and Kneese, who recently contributed in the collection called Radical Care, contend that collective care could be a way forward especially in stations of immediate crisis and precarious future(9)

I think to do good care for the self and for others in order for us to reach a higher level of happiness and deep resonant meaningfulness with our lives, we need to take a break from the neoliberal performative logic, and distance ourselves from the alienating processes of capitalism. Instead, we should aim to find what could truly bring us closer to our human nature (as individuals in collective social relations): our needs for rootedness and a sense of belonging, relatedness, sense of identity, and mind frame to make sense of the world. What Hobert and Kneese offer as inspirational is integrating self-care to collective-care through coalitional work and solidarity.

Causes to mental health issues and physical health issues are due to interlinked discrimination, exploitation, imposed control, and inequalities. Many people, both the disadvantaged and marginalized, and those who discriminate and dominate are affected, though in different ways. Thus, this is not merely an individual’s task for self-preservation under prescribed medical instructions. Collective action can play important roles for individuals and “communities to live through hardship” and develop stronger agencies to build and demand a different reality than the one imposed by neoliberal capitalism.

In the last few months living under pandemic and mental health issues, I have struggled to figure out what to do. However, in the process, many things have happened that have testified to the power of collective care. My partner has shown generous and attentive care to me when I faced difficulties, my friends have offered to help me in various ways, and I have also given time, food, and companionship to the friends who are in need.

It is in those moments of mutual aid and reciprocal caring that I felt happier and regained a sense of connectedness and belonging. However, I am still unsure and unable to attend to my creative and expressive needs, as well as my intellectual development needs. Nor am I able to make total sense of the entire experience and what I can do to prevent a fall into a state deprived of meaning and motivation during my academic journey.

This article is an attempt for me to make sense of my past experience while stepping outside of myself to reflect on the structural issues around me, and seek new avenues of solution from the realm of ideas. But the answers and solutions are not all here, and may or may not come in my future inquiries.


[1] Matthews, D. (2019). Capitalism and Mental Health. Monthly Review2019, Volume 70(Issue 08).

[2] Olssen *, M., & Peters, M. A. (2005). Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: From the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy20(3), 313–345.

[3] Priestley, M. (2019). Sick of study: Student mental “illness” and neoliberal higher education policy. In X. Shao & E. Dobson (Eds.), Imagining Better Education: Conference Proceedings 2018. (pp. 183–199). Durham University, School of Education.

[4] Ball & Olmedo, 2013, P.88, as cited in Priestley, 2019.

[5] Matthews, D. (2019). Capitalism and Mental Health. Monthly Review2019, Volume 70(Issue 08).

[6] Read, J. (2009). A genealogy of homo-economicus: Neoliberalism and the production of subjectivity. Foucault Studies, 25.

[7]  Foucault, 1979, p.294, as cited in Priestley, 2019.

[8] McGee, M. (2020). Capitalism’s care problem. Social Text38(1), 39–66.

[9] Hobart, H. J. K., & Kneese, T. (2020). Radical care. Social Text38(1), 1–16.

About the Author

Thea Yan Pan is studying Education and Globalisation in the University of Oulu, Finland. She is also an member of Critical Edges.

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