Utrecht students enjoying the sun a couple weeks ago in the Lepelenburg park. Photo: DUB

New official statistics: no rise in mental health issues among young people in 2020

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Surveys show time after time that students are suffering psychologically because of the coronavirus crisis. However, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the Dutch statistics office, the number of young people experiencing psychological problems did not rise significantly in 2020.

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In the past few years, Dutch student organisations have expressed their concern about the increasing stress and burn-out complaints among their members, a situation that has been supposedly aggravated by the coronavirus crisis. But Statistics Netherlands always had a different story to tell: they have not seen a significant rise in the number of young people suffering from psychological problems in recent years.

One would expect that to change in 2020, but once again the numbers remain rather stable, according to the figures published on Friday. While the number of people aged between 18 and 25 experiencing mental health issues did indeed rise somewhat in 2020 (from 12.2 percent in 2017-2019 to 13.8 percent in 2020), Statistics Netherlands does not consider the change significant. The same is true of all other age groups.

Jump
Only if you look at the entire Dutch population do you see the number of people with psychological problems increase by a half percentage point in the last quarter of 2020, compared to the last quarter of 2019. “That is a significant rise, but no real cause for concern”, Statistics Netherlands researcher Tanja Traag explains. “A little jump in the quarterly figures has also occurred occasionally in past years”.

Traag realises that the figures go against all other statements about how young people are suffering in this pandemic. “Perhaps the question is whether the interpretation put forward by some of the other studies is completely accurate”.

Statistics Netherlands has been using the same questionnaire (in Dutch) to measure mental health in the population for years. Therefore, the figures can be seen as a benchmark, says Traag. “There are also a lot of studies currently being published that were only conducted in 2020, with questions that specifically deal with the coronavirus crisis. This may call up different associations among the respondents”.

Panel
In a report (link in Dutch) published on Wednesday, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) also raised the alarm about the mental wellbeing of young people and students. The researchers based their study on data from a big, long-standing panel of more than 2,400 people, including a small group of 300 young people aged 16 to 29. It demonstrates that the whole population of the Netherlands was able to get through 2020 reasonably well in terms of mental health.

But the results are different if you take a look at certain groups, according to the SCP. Young people in particular seem to be suffering more in the pandemic. For example, at the end of 2020, a third of higher education students and school pupils classified their psychological wellbeing as "low". In previous years, that figure was about a quarter.

Highlighted
How can that be reconciled with the figures just published by Statistics Netherlands? According to Head researcher and Health Psychologist Peter van der Velden, of CentERdata and Tilburg University, the two studies don’t necessarily contradict each other. “It really depends on what exactly was being investigated”, he explains. “What kind of questions were asked? What kind of analyses were done, and which variables were identified? If you highlight specific groups, you might also find more problems".

Van der Velden points to his own current research as an example. “We are seeing there that 16 to 20-year-olds clearly suffered more over the past year than people of the same age in 2016 and 2012. But for the group of 20 to 35-year-olds that is not the case”.

In any case, it is important to look at what the situation was before the coronavirus crisis, Van der Velden asserts. In a recently published study, he and his team compared measurements from the end of 2018, 2019 and 2020. “We kept seeing exactly the same pattern. Therefore, the mental health of the adult population is fairly stable”. That corresponds to the findings of the SCP.

Sick and tired
Van der Velden warns that psychological problems are often thrown into one big pile. “Everyone is sick and tired of the lockdown. We all want to go out for dinner again or a concert. But that doesn’t mean that you’re suffering from depression”.

However, that does not detract from the fact that he, too, is worried about the younger generation. “I see it in my own students. Because of all the restrictions, you can’t give them the kind of education they need. There’s the threat that this will be a lost year and it’s happening to them at an age when, normally speaking, you make all kinds of connections and build your own identity. That doesn’t mean that they all need therapy, but this is certainly not good for their development”.

Scapegoat
It looks like young people are not lying awake at night worrying about how they're blamed for the rising numbers of coronavirus infections. The panel members of the SCP study put young people way ahead of other suggested groups, such as “those who violate government measures”, “party-goers and pub-goers” and “virus deniers and conspiracy theorists”.

The young respondents don't seem to be bothered by that in the slightest. Only one in eight felt personally under attack by the debate around Covid-19. Nonetheless, the SCP warned for stigmatisation and exclusion. “Social trust is ultimately the sum total of the attitudes and behaviours of people towards each other”.

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