International students are more likely to experience stress than Dutch students. They receive higher scores in several mental health indicators, such as anxiety and depression. Moreover, they are more afraid to contract Covid-19 than their Dutch fellow students, and more likely to engage in avoidant behaviour, for example stay at home, avoid social activities and buy more groceries than needed. Those are the first conclusions drawn in a study on the correlation between mental health and Covid-19 conducted among 850 university students by professor of Clinical psychology Matthias Wieser and assistant professor Marta Andreatta immediately after the first coronavirus restrictions were implemented in the Netherlands.

Wieser also found a correlation between fear of the coronavirus and anxiety in general. “Fear of the coronavirus is related to what we call intolerance for uncertainty. This is a good predictor for anxiety disorders.” In other words: “People who hate not knowing what will happen tomorrow tend to be more likely to fear the coronavirus.” In addition, they found a correlation between the level of news consumption and fear of the coronavirus. The more often people seek to find information on Covid-19, the more they will fear the disease.

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Clinical symptoms

Another survey previously conducted by the university also showed that international students are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, loneliness or sadness. Wieser was not surprised to learn the results of that survey. “Research has shown that first-year international students in particular experience a great deal of stress. This is because they haven’t built up a social circle yet, are seeking to find their way in a new country with a new culture and have to arrange all sorts of things.”

It is impossible to say on the basis of the study how many students are experiencing mental health issues due to the coronavirus crisis. Wieser: “It’s hard to get a proper feel for how worrying these results are. Many students experience stress at the best of times. We’re getting the impression that the nature of that stress is now changing and is added on top of the regular stress of being a student. I expect a small number of students to develop actual clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression due to Covid-19 – particularly those who suffered increased anxiety and stress levels even before the coronavirus outbreak.”

Stress peak

Wieser and Andreatta have just submitted an application for a grant they hope will allow them to continue their study on the correlation between mental health issues and the coronavirus crisis. “We plan to repeat the survey three times in the next two years and to conduct lab research on underlying neurobiological mechanisms. This will allow us to see how the stress peak develops, which in turn will make it easier for us to determine what types of students are at risk of developing clinical symptoms of anxiety or depression after an event like the coronavirus outbreak.”

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