The problems are greater for women, international students and non-heterosexual students. The research also reveals that many University of Twente students use alcohol and drugs – more often than students elsewhere, in fact. One in three has used cannabis in the past year.
Perhaps the actual situation of the students is less gloomy, considers Kelders. Her questionnaire was sent to all students, but it may be the case that students with symptoms felt more motivated to fill it in. The university’s email policy prevented the research team from sending a reminder.
What is more, everyone feels anxious or sombre from time to time. When does it actually become a problem? “That’s a difficult question,” says Kelders. “But we know one thing for sure: minor symptoms can disappear after a while, but they can also get worse.”
The problem is still a serious one, she thinks. The more students with minor symptoms, the more will eventually develop more serious problems. One of the recommendations from her study is to teach students how to cope with stress, because prevention is better than cure. And stress prevention is something they can benefit from for the rest of their lives.
These kinds of studies – Windesheim University of Applied Sciences has earlier carried out similar research – also play a role in politics. Student organisations and political parties seize on the results in order to plead their own conviction: the basic student grant has to be restored, the binding study recommendation has to be scrapped, and so on. Is this justified?
“We can confirm that students do indeed experience a lot of stress and that many have mental health issues, but we haven’t yet investigated the causes,” adds Kelders by way of nuance. “So it’s hard to say. We also don’t know if the situation has got worse and, if so, whether only students are affected. Times change: maybe everyone experiences more stress now than in the past.”
So you really can’t use the results to say anything about student grants or the binding study recommendation, she thinks. “You’d have to investigate how students specifically deal with those issues. You can’t say that this stress is a result of the new system of student loans, but you can’t say the opposite either.”
She is nevertheless sure that many students are affected, which is why in her view there is little point in simply engaging a few more student psychologists to deal with the most serious cases. “You can better focus on prevention. You achieve much more with that, for example by focusing on people’s attitude to stress – a major factor.”
Stress in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Some people have no problem with stress; they flourish under the pressure of a deadline. Kelders: “Such people don’t develop stress-related symptoms either. That’s a recent insight.”
Kelders herself is carrying out research into the possibility of using technology and ICT to help prevent psychological problems. In theory that’s fine, because you can reach many students with technology. But it is not a panacea either, she warns. “Then you have to develop something together with students, lecturers and study advisors. The idea has to have broad support.”
The University of Twente is working on an action plan for student welfare, based partly on the results of Kelders’ research. The Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) is also looking into student welfare, and is currently carrying out further research.