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Recommendations from the Student Well-being Taskforce

We know from national and international research that many students struggle with psychological problems. How about students in Leiden? Leiden University's Student Well-being Taskforce wants to see more research and has also come up with some advice, ranging from personal buddies and digital support to help with waiting lists.

National and international studies show that for many students their study years are a carefree time. Around one in five students has psychological problems, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, excessive stress or sleep problems Over-use of alcohol and drugs is relatively common. The same kinds of problems can be seen among non-studying contemporaries, according to Philip Spinhoven, Professor of Clinical Psychology and chair of the Student Well-being Taskforce at Leiden University. 'Stress among young adults with possible consequences for their psychological health is a growing problem, but the problems and causes are very diverse, which makes it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution.'

Caring universities

So far, no detailed research has been done on the extent to which Leiden students suffer from psychological problems. To redress this, the Student Well-being Taskforce is calling for a detailed survey and for Leiden to join Caring universities, a Dutch partnership of the Vrije Universiteit, Utrecht University and Maastricht University. These universities share best practices and together with students develop ‘e-health interventions’ (online programmes) for issues that crop up more frequently. This partnership also uses the survey of the World Mental Health Survey Initiative: an online questionnaire that measures psychological problems such as depession and anxiety, as well as alcohol and drug use.

Studying in the University Library.

Insight into problems

This standardised survey has a number of advantages, according to Spinhoven. The anonymous results will give the University insight into the mental health of its students, and will also make it possible to compare the findings with those of other universities. Repeating the measurements will show whether students are benefiting from the measures being taken to promote their well-being. Every student who takes part will receive a personalised report on his or her own emotional health, as well as advice if there are problem issues. 

The University's role

The question is how far the role of the University should go. The Taskforce is in favour of more University-wide measures, but at the same time points out that there are limits. Treating serious psychological problems or disorders is not the job of the University, according to the Taskforce. Spinhoven: ‘Obviously, we are not a kind of public health insitution, although the University could play an active role in referring students for treatment or helping with waiting lists.' 

Improving resilience

The focus has to be on prevention, Spinhoven stresses. By improving students' resilience, you can reduce the likelihood of their developing psychological problems. 'We want our students not only to gain knowledge, but also to learn how to handle stress and demanding situations.' 

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New platform

The University already offers various types of support, such as workshops on stress reduction, mindfulness lessons and guidance by psychological counsellors and study advisers. The support offered varies from faculty to faculty and is rather fragmented, The Taskforce recommends that the facilities offered by the different facilities should be streamlined and better coordinated. A new digital platform for students would make the full range of support much clearer.  

Guidance via e-health

The Taskforce also wants the range of support to be broadened. Students themselves are helping to develop e-health modules. An example at the Institute of Psychology is the Moodpep e-health module that students can use to monitor how they are doing and to get tips on how to deal with such complaints as stress and low mood. The module also offers the opportunity to contact a coach, a master's student trained in clinical psychology who works under the supervision of a qualified lecturer. Spinhoven: ‘Research shows that e-health works best when it is combined with personal attention from a coach. The aim is to use the knowledge we acquire from our research within the University itself.' 

Making studies personally relevant

Another online tool is the partly digital learning enviroment Learning my way, a pilot project among students of Law, Social and Behavioural Sciences and the Honours College. The programme asks questions like: what do you want to achieve with your studies? What are your strong and less strong points? and What competences do you need to develop further to help you attain your goal? Spinhoven: ‘Students can sometimes find it difficult to motivate themselves. It helps if their study programme is as personally relevant as possible because then they know why they are working so hard. If this project works well, it could be broadened to include more students.' 

International students eating together during the introduction week.

Pay more attention to international students

International students warrant extra attention, Spinhoven emphasises. They don't have a safety net of family and trusted friends here to fall back on and they don't know their way around the Dutch healthcare system. The Taskforce advocates a University-wide buddy system for students and greater expertise among lecturers so that they are better at recognising warning signals and know what action to take.   

Make it easier to talk about psychological problems

Another important point is making it easier to talk about psychological problems. Spinhoven believes that Leiden students are generally quite open, but not about psychological problems. 'Often, family and friends have high expectations of you when you're a student. Many students experience this pressure to be successful and to show their success, including via socal media. 'One recommendation from the Taskforce is to provide more information about psychological problems and to make it easier to talk about them, for example by bringing the issue up at introduction days. 'This way new students will know they aren't the only ones with problems and they will learn what they themselves can do and how the University can help.'

Reaction from Vice-Rector Hester Bijl

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl is very pleased with the advice from the Taskforce: ‘An integrated approach to how we support students and their well-being is very important. This could include raising awareness within the University of the importance of student well-being, paying attention to prevention and early warning signals, focusing on providing a good range of help and psychosocial interventions and furthering the professionalisation of our student mentors.' Bijl is also in favour of joining Caring Universities and making use of its online questionnaire so that we can gain an accurate measurement of psychological problems and interventions.  

Reaction from a student

Nienke Wit, student of Biomedical Sciences, was a member of the Taskforce that worked on the report. She believes it is very important that the University will be taking relevant measures. 'The pressure on students is very high: you want to get good results, have an active social life, enjoy a fun student house, have a part-time job, probably be a member of a committee as well as playing a sport. All this leads to a lot of stress for students, which can have serious consequences. That's why it is important to support students and to take steps to promote student well-being.'  

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