Student stress: Minister wants to have the facts before acting

| HOP, Melanie Zierse

Should the psychological complaints of students be tackled immediately, or should we await the results of a broad-based study by the public health body RIVM on the mental health of young people? Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven tends towards the latter response.

Dutch students appear to be in a bad way, suffering from stress, anxiety disorders and burn-out symptoms. But are they really in such bad shape? According to currently available data, this is not actually the case, the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) stated at the end of May.

For this reason, there will be a new, broad-based study at the insistence of the Dutch House of Representatives. The RIVM will carry out a ‘quantitative baseline measurement’ to find out what percentage of students in higher education have mental health issues. But Van Engelshoven does not expect to be able to present the results until the end of 2020. Should action not be taken in the meantime?

A helping hand

Yes, says the Christian Union party, among others. No, says the conservative-liberal VVD. The liberals think it is premature to conclude now that students are under greater pressure than in the past. They want the Minister to wait for the results of the study.

In answer to Parliamentary Questions, Van Engelshoven says that she will only take measures if the new information provided by the study gives grounds to do so. However, in the meantime the Ministry will continue to engage with the Working Group on Student Welfare. The Minister will discuss with students and institutions what can be done to give a helping hand to students who need support.

The Minister also refers to the responsibility of higher education institutions to prevent complaints from arising and to help deal with them. A recent (unrepresentative) study by the Expertisecentrum Handicap + Studie (Centre of Expertise on Disability + Study) shows that according to the institutions, there is a good range of help available. However, students themselves say that they still have difficulty in navigating the system.

Risk factors

Furthermore, many parties are concerned that the RIVM study will not be comprehensive. Will the researchers also look at possible causes of mental health problems, such as the student loan system?

‘Financial problems and worries about financial matters will be included, as will performance pressure,’ says Van Engelshoven in response.

However, she does add a caveat: ‘Because a baseline measurement is involved, and because we want to create a broad inventory of the factors that play a role, the study will not produce any evidence of causal links.’ It will only be possible to speak of ‘risk factors’. She is confident, however, that she will be able to take measures on that basis.