October 11, 2019 • HOP, Bas Helleman
New study confirms that students suffer from stress
A new study conducted at the University of Twente confirms that many students struggle with stress and symptoms of depression. But we do have to qualify the results, warns researcher Saskia Kelders. Politicians cannot simply use these results as they please.
The numbers are a quite alarming, states psychologist Saskia Kelders. If her research is right, eighty percent of students at Twente suffer from light to even serious mental-health issues, reporting symptoms such as fear and depression.
These problems are more serious for women, international students and non-heterosexual students. A large number of students at the University of Twente also uses alcohol and drugs, more so than elsewhere. One in three students say they smoked cannabis at least once in the last year.
In reality perhaps things aren’t as bad for students as they seem, according to Kelders. The survey was sent out to all students, but maybe only those suffering from any symptoms felt compelled to respond. The university’s email policy prevented the researchers from sending out a reminder.
Also, everyone feels afraid or down at times. But when does it become a problem? “That is a tricky question,” replies Kelders. “What we do know is that mild symptoms can go away after a while, but may also worsen.”
So that is a serious problem, she affirms. The more students suffer from mild symptoms, the more students will end up suffering from more serious problems. Her research recommends teaching students how to deal with stress, as it’s better to be safe than sorry. And it also means teaching students an important life skill.
These kinds of reports – The Windesheim University of Applied Sciences has done a comparable study in the past – also play a role in politics. Student organisations and political parties use the results to plea for their own causes: the basic grant must be reinstated, the binding study advice must be abolished etc. Is that justified?
“We can confirm that students experience a lot of stress and suffer from psychological problems, but we haven’t researched the cause of this,” qualifies Kelders. “So it’s hard to say for sure. We also don’t know if it has become worse and if so, if this only applies to students. Times are changing, perhaps everyone experiences more stress than we did in the past.”
So she believes that you cannot use the results to say something definitive about student finance or the binding study advice. “Before you can do that, you need to research how students are handling those issues specifically. You cannot state that this stress is caused by the new loan system. But you also cannot affirm the opposite.”
However, she knows for a fact that it affects a lot of students. That’s why she doesn’t think there is much point in hiring a few extra student psychologists to deal with the serious cases. “You are better off investing in prevention. That will be much more effective. We know for example that someone’s views on stress play an important role.”
Stress in itself is not necessarily good or bad. Some people like stress. They thrive under the pressure of a deadline. Kelders: “They also don’t suffer any negative health impacts. That is a recent insight.”
She has been researching the possibility of using technology and ICT to prevent mental health problems. In theory it sounds great, as you can reach a lot of students that way. But it’s also not a cure-all, she warns. “You have to develop something together with the students, lecturers and study advisors. There has to be support for the idea.”
The University of Twente is working on an action plan for student welfare. The results of this study will be included in this plan. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has also looked at the issue of student welfare and is now conducting further research.