‘Some statistics and experiences’ is the subtitle of the research published on Friday by RIVM together with the Trimbos institute and the Amsterdam University Medical Centre. On behalf of the Ministry of Health, the researchers compared all the existing data about mental health among young people. They did not perform any new research and call their report ‘a first step’.
The most important source is Statistics Netherlands (CBS), which reported last year that the number of young people (aged 12-25) suffering from mental illness had risen ‘very slightly’ over the course of ten years: from 7 to 8 percent. Within this, CBS claimed that there was also a ‘very slight’ rise among young people aged between 18 and 25: from 8.8 to 10.9 percent.
That seems remarkable, in view of the constant flow of worrying reports that students are increasingly suffering from anxiety, stress and depression. Some of the reasons mentioned are the increased pressure to perform, the omnipresent social media and the student loan system.
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The RIVM report refers among others to research by Windesheim in 2018. This claimed that 46 percent of the students at this university of applied sciences do not suffer at all, or only mildly, from anxiety and depression, that 39 percent have light to moderate anxiety and/or depression and that over 14 percent suffer serious anxiety and/or depression. However, because the Windesheim study uses different measurement tools, the RIVM is unable to properly compare these percentages with those of CBS.
When gathering statistics about mental health, the researchers also encountered differing uses of terms. This makes it confusing when interpreting research results and in the public debate.
According to some sources, three quarters of young people are suffering from ‘burnout symptoms’, while this is less than ten percent in other sources. Even the result of the same survey can be presented as ‘psychological instability’ in one case and as ‘emotional problems’, ‘emotional symptoms’ or as ‘burnout symptoms’ elsewhere.
That makes it confusing, say the researchers. They therefore appeal for the use of the same measurement tools and for a clear conceptual framework.
Pressure to perform
Together with the Amsterdam UMC, RIVM conducted seven group conversations with a total of 41 young people: 2 boys and 39 girls. Many of them wanted to conform to ‘the perfect image’ as presented on social media and became less confident as a result. Clearly, the increased pressure to perform only partly explains stress among young people. The detailed results of the group conversations will be published later this year.
Don’t just look at the inner world, the researchers warn. In agreement, they refer to an essay by the Council for Public Health and Society (RVS), which feels that there is too little attention for the social causes of mental health problems.
RIVM concludes that there are still gaps in the analysis. The national monitor for student welfare, which is being set up at the urging of the House of Representatives, may instigate changes in this. Solutions can then be sought.
Student organisation ISO is extremely disappointed with the report and calls it ‘far from a comprehensive study into the causes of mental health problems among students’. President Tom van den Brink talks about ‘a missed opportunity for everyone’ and refers to all the previous research. “Student welfare is under pressure and that is exacerbated by financial concerns,” is his firm belief.