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Numbers of students with mental health problems not on the rise


This week it's Wellbeing Week at Utrecht University. It seems as though one organisation after the other is sounding the alarm about higher levels of student stress. ‘An untrue picture that just won't go away,’ says Tilburg health psychologist Peter van der Velden.

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Anyone who reads a newspaper almost always come to the same conclusion: life is tough for students. They have to deal with stress, anxiety disorders and symptoms of burn-out. And with the increased pressure to achieve and the abolition of the basic student grant, things are only getting worse. At Utrecht University a taskforce suggested a university wide Wellbeing Week.  The second edition takes place this week.

But are these psychological problems among students really getting worse? No, according to former victimology professor Peter van der Velden of the CentERdata research institute in Tilburg. In fact, in the past decade there has hardly been any change.

Van der Velden’s recently published research shows that in 2007, 2012 and 2017 around 7 percent of students and other young people experienced serious problems with their study programmes or jobs owing to physical or mental health problems. In all three of these years, approximately 35 percent regularly felt fatigued and around 9 percent suffered from serious feelings of anxiety and depression. Less than 2 percent used medication to treat their problems.

Another conclusion: psychological problems occur among students just as often as among their non-studying peers.

Previous studies give a very different picture. This week the Dutch National Student Association ISO presented figures derived from 18 previous studies into student well-being. According to these figures, half of students suffer from problematic levels of stress, one third have psychologically related symptoms (such as concentration problems, performance anxiety and depression) while 15 percent had a serious risk of developing occupational burn-out.

How can the results of your study differ so much from earlier studies?
‘Many of those studies can’t really be called scientific publications. There is quite a difference between a random report and a peer-reviewed article that is subjected to rigorous examination. A student psychologist reporting a rise in students seeking help does not mean you can conclude that there are therefore more students with problems. Earlier research by the RIVM, along with various international studies, come to a similar conclusion as we have.’

So, your figures are reliable?
‘Yes. We used the so-called LISS panel, which is based on a representative sample of the Dutch population. The people are involved for quite a long period and answer questions each year on a number of subjects, including their health. We looked at 1,100 young people on this panel aged between 19 and 24.

The questions are the same each year and they are also always put to the respondents in the same way. This allows for comparisons to be made. Furthermore, our study uses the same measuring instrument as in many other national and international studies, to which it can therefore certainly be compared.’

You and your fellow researchers conclude that there is little difference between the mental health of students and their non-studying peers. Is that a new development?
‘We already knew that from a previous large study based on surveys of the World Health Organisation, but it is still odd that we never hear anyone talk about it. Everyone is focused on the mental health problems of students. That is very odd indeed, and actually wrong.’

Why is everyone always so obsessed with those stressed-out students?
‘The fuss is only getting worse. I don’t want to say that students have no problems; of course. There are certainly students with problems. It’s just that we have not found any indications that problems are increasing. But that is not the kind of news you come across very often in the media.’

Politicians and organisations also use the figures for their own agendas.
‘I find that a plausible hypothesis, but it is difficult to prove. What I can say is that as soon as you draw attention to psychological problems, you immediately get the backing of a lot of media. Saying that problems are worse than thought is always guaranteed to get you on the front pages, so to speak. It is very effective as a means of coercion.’

The ISO did not respond to the substance of the Tilburg study and sticks to its earlier analysis that stress among students is definitely increasing. As far as ISO chairman Kees Gillesse is concerned, the call for urgent action stands.

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