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Student mental health problems still common but less so than in covid year 2021

The number of students suffering from stress and anxiety has decreased slightly compared with 2021. But around half still suffer from mental health problems. And student alcohol consumption remains high. This is according to the National Mental Health and Substance Use Monitor. What does Leiden University do to promote student well-being?

Students at Leiden University seem to almost entirely follow the national trend, Maarten Fischer, the student psychologists’ team leader, observes. However, only 4.5% of our students completed the survey. Student psychologist Sanne Weeber also recognises the national trends at Leiden University. They comment together on the national figures.

The National Mental Health and Substance Use Monitor for Students in Higher Education 2023 (in Dutch) 2023 was conducted by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Trimbos Institute and the branch organisation of Municipal Health Services and Regional Medical Assistance Organisations (GGD GHOR). More than 32,000 students from 24 research universities and universities of applied sciences participated, 1484 of whom were from Leiden, see Leiden University report (in Dutch). 

Comparison between 2021 and 2023

‘The monitor gives a mixed picture’, says Fischer. ‘It is positive that some problems have decreased somewhat but a significant number of students are still suffering.’ Emotional exhaustion, frequent academic pressure and feelings of anxiety, low mood and loneliness are slightly less common in 2023 than in 2021. The respondents also seem somewhat more satisfied with their lives in general. This improvement is due in part to the decreased effects of the covid pandemic and restrictions.

Professional help

The 2023 survey respondents reported receiving professional help from inside or outside the university more often for mental health problems. ‘Slightly more students contacted a student psychologist at our university this year too’, says Weeber. ‘This is partly because there is more support. In recent years, the number of student psychologists has increased − from six to nine − there has been an even greater focus throughout the university on student well-being and students receive more encouragement to seek help when things are not going well.’

There are now more student psychologists and more students are contacting them

More than half struggle with mental health problems

This proves necessary because 53% of the respondents reported mental health problems having a ‘moderate to severe effect’ on them and 56% reported recently experiencing high or very high stress. Studying is the greatest source of stress; in the social sphere, it is the cost of living. As they should, students with study concerns first report to their programme’s study adviser, say Fischer and Weeber. If mental health problems are a factor, they can talk to a student psychologist, and if they need help and advice on regulations and facilities, they can contact the student counsellors. A combination of problems is often at play, Weeber notes.

Breaking taboos

Students sometimes feel extremely helpless as problems and health issues pile up. A quarter of the respondents reported being ‘tired of life’ occasionally or more often. ‘That is a worrying percentage’, says Fischer. ‘It’s something we as student psychologists are always alert to when we are talking to students. It also highlights the importance of topics such as suicide prevention and breaking taboos on talking about mental health problems. This is what we are working on in various projects.’

How representative are the results?

Without wishing to detract from the results, both note that some nuance is needed. More than 32,000 students took the national monitor. The question is whether the problems they report also apply to the more than 93% who did not take the survey. For example, relatively more respondents indicated that they have had or are having counselling from a psychologist than is true for the entire university. The degree or severity of mental health problems may be slightly biased upward. Fischer suspects that students with problems are more likely to take the survey.

Students use cannabis slightly less but continue to drink heavily

Alcohol and drugs

A positive trend seems to be that students are using cannabis or psychedelics less frequently and taking sleep pills or tranquilisers less often than in 2021. But their alcohol consumption remains high. For example, 10% of participating students are excessive drinkers: more than 21 glasses of alcohol per week (men) or more than 14 glasses per week (women). And 16% are heavy drinkers: more than six (men) or four (women) glasses of alcohol in a day at least once a week.

More prevention needed

One way the university is trying to reduce alcohol is with covenants with student and study associations. ‘But not all students are members of associations and many students report drinking mainly at home or in bars. We want to focus more on prevention, awareness and a healthy lifestyle, and we can only achieve that in collaboration with multiple community partners, such as the municipality or the hospitality industry.’

Workshops and training

For students looking for an easy way to get started, there are a variety of workshops, training courses and e-modules. For example, there are e-health modules on how to deal with low mood or fear of failure and programmes that help increase your resilience and make problems less likely to grow. ‘We encourage everyone to check out the wide range of options’, says Weber.

Banner photo: Marc de Haan

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