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Enrolling in a higher education programme means experiencing major upheavals in one’s life, be they sociological, cultural, psychological or even biological. David Gourion, a psychiatrist who has published numerous books over the past fifteen to thirty years, deconstructs for us what really occurs at this pivotal moment.

How can arriving at a graduate school be a difficult time for students?

While there are major differences depending on the young person – not everyone starts off on equal footing when it comes to their emotional balance, stress management, uncertainty or neurobehavioural issues – there are factors that all students share. The neurosciences have shown that the period between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five are immensely consequential for our brain, where what we call “neural pruning” takes place. To put it simply, you lose neurons on the one hand, but acquire increased reasoning faculties, in the way that a railway network would tear up a lot of secondary tracks to optimise others and make way for high-speed trains.

This period of biological destabilisation coincides with very powerful sociological and cultural factors. The internet and social media bring about new difficulties. We have shifted from intrinsic values (belonging to a community or an idea that act as boundary-markers for us) to extrinsic values, like what one possesses, what one shows to others, etc.

Also, being a good student is no longer enough. The required skills have gone beyond this aspect. The art of network building, social agility and soft skills count as much as our knowledge or scholarly intelligence. So, while they should feel invincible and prepared to conquer the world, a lot of young people around the age of twenty are instead stricken by anxiety.


What can the roles of professors be?

Professors can respond in many different ways. Some will immediately detect that a certain student’s behaviour has changed in the last week. They will naturally take the time to speak with them, with the pedagogic team, even their parents if they feel a dangerous situation is on the horizon. They can identify what might turn into a psychological problem.

Others may not really notice or may be scared to do the wrong thing, or still, because of a conservative outlook, they believe that it’s not their role to watch over the mental health of their students. Between these two profiles is a wide range of reactions.

What is certain is that the psychological aspect is inseparable from physical health or intellectual performance. It must be a motivator for all faculty members because while each teacher will still have to their same profession, roles now overlap, and each person connected to the students should be able to observe, listen and talk with them.


You carried out studies in Canada. What lesson did you take away from this? 

In Canada, I was struck by the different approach of schools as compared to the schools we know here in France. Schools in Canada place a large focus on the emotional development of children, while we centre our efforts more on performance, even at a very young age.

Now I won’t say that one system is better than the other, but this does raise an essential question: Is the school’s role to teach or convey? This latter concept can come to mean many different things.

In graduate schools, which I know well [David Gourion was the psychiatrist on the HEC Paris campus. Editor’s note}, professors who sit down for coffee with students outside of class convey things that they are not teaching (their past and experiences or personal reflections). They are not academic and yet are likely to make a long-lasting impression on the students, even more so than certain courses.




  • Psychiatrist David Gourion was clinic head at Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris and teaches at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. He has written several books for the general public.
  • La fragilité des jeunes adultes : 15-30 ans, prévenir, aider, accompagner (Odile Jacob, 2015)
  • Éloge des intelligences atypiques (Odile Jacob, 2018)
  • Antistress (Marabout, 2022)