‘Very worrying’, is how the government describes the results of the first ‘Monitor of mental health and substance use among higher education students’, which has been compiled by the Trimbos Institute, the RIVM and the GGD.

The most important findings in brief:

  • Half of the students experience (mostly moderate) psychological complaints. In 12 percent of the cases there are serious complaints
  • Two out of three students feel emotionally exhausted
  • Many students experience stress (62 percent), performance pressure (76 percent) or have sleeping problems (41 percent)
  • Almost 80 percent feel lonely
  • Students with a high (expected) study debt are more likely to experience psychological problems. Psychological complaints are also more common among students with a migrant background, international students and students who identify as LGBT+.

This spring, 28,000 students from seven universities of applied sciences and eight research universities were questioned about their health and substance use. The survey was carried out at the time of the curfew and the closure of hospitality venues during the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Weary of living

Two out of three students felt emotionally exhausted at that time. A quarter were weary of living and sometimes wished they could go to sleep and not wake up again. Four percent even had that wish frequently.

More than one in four students drinks excessively or heavily. Excessive (11 percent) means more than 21 glasses of alcohol per week for men and more than 14 for women. ‘Heavy’ drinkers (16 percent) consume six glasses (men) or four glasses (women) at least once a week.

Cannabis appears to be pretty well accepted among students. One in three have smoked cannabis in the past twelve months and eight percent do so every week. The researchers looked at other types of substance use and addictions, gaming in particular: five percent spend too much time at their gaming consoles.

Watch also

EM TV: Increased drug use among students. ‘Don’t make it a habit of using drugs at home’

In this broadcast, Professor Ingmar Franken and EM editor Elmer Smaling discuss the…

First large-scale survey

There were concerns about the mental health of students even before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, especially because of heavy study loads and rising levels of debt among students. This survey was announced at that time. This is the first time that students’ mental health has been investigated on this scale.

It emerges that those with high levels of debt from their studies use more substances. Also, students with more (expected) study debt experience more psychological complaints. The researchers say that this is very worrying, even though they are unable to relate cause and effect.

Perfomance pressure

Sixty-two percent of students experienced stress in the four weeks prior to filling in the questionnaire. Among more than half, this was caused by the coronavirus crisis, but an even larger number (72 percent) blame the stress on their studies. Three quarters of all students experience perfomance pressure.

The researchers recommend an approach that involves substance abuse prevention among students, with a specific focus on groups such as international students and students with an impairment, who appear to be extra vulnerable. Educational institutions ought to pay more attention to students’ mental well-being as well.


Read also

Student life in 2020: less sociable, less spontaneous, less sex and more concerns about mental health

Students miss meeting new people and fellow students, worry about their mental health and…

Student financing

“It is of course likely that the complaints are related to the coronavirus pandemic and the associated measures”, Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven and State Secretary for Health Paul Blokhuis write in a letter to the House of Representatives.

According to these two government members, however, the report raises questions about how the education system is organised and financed. “The financial situation of students and their prospects on the labour and housing market can also play a role”, they argue.

The government is going to hold talks with the institutions about a suitable approach. The survey will be repeated in two years’ time to see how things are going with students then.


The viewpoint of the student organisations, which have been sounding the alarm for years, has now been confirmed as correct. “It’s alarming to see that so many students are having difficulty making ends meet”, says Lisanne de Roos, chair of the Dutch National Students’ Association. “After today, nobody can ever say that mental problems affect only a small number of students.”

The Dutch Student Union is shocked too. “Your student years should be about personal development but the opposite is the case: students are succumbing to the pressure to perform. That is extremely worrying”, says chair Ama Boahene.

She stresses that more needs to be done for the mental health of students. “Solutions that are currently being put forward are generally no more than palliative, whereas preventive policy is needed. Systemic causes such as the pressure to perform, loneliness and the loan system must be tackled. That is a responsibility that is shared by educational institutions and national politics.”

Extra student psychologists

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands, VSNU, recognises the “worrying picture” emerging from surveys of students’ mental health carried out by universities themselves. “The coronavirus period is hitting many students very hard. That’s why in recent times we have also been emphasising the importance of face-to-face teaching.”

The universities have recently taken on extra student psychologists and they are endeavouring to provide better information.