With levels of student mental distress having risen sharply in the UK are there lessons we can learn from other countries, to seek to avoid this? That’s what I’m researching, as a member of the Health Action Campaign project team. I’d welcome any findings on this from fellow researchers.
Why the Netherlands?
The Netherlands is where I’ve started, as a recent study found no evidence of an increase in student mental health problems over the last ten years.1 This probably isn’t surprising as, since the World Happiness report started in 2012, the Netherlands has never finished outside the top seven, whereas the UK has never come higher than 15th.2
At Health Action Campaign we are looking to provide fresh perspectives as to why student mental distress has been increasing in the UK and what might be done to reverse this. So, is there anything we might learn from the Dutch?
Should we burst the student bubble in the UK?
A third of UK students report suffering from loneliness often or all of the time, even though there are many clubs and societies available.3 Dutch universities offer fewer clubs and societies but students tend to get more involved in life in their local town or city by joining local sports clubs or choirs for example.4 Perhaps being involved in activities outside the ‘university bubble’ can help students maintain a sense of balance and build friendships and connections outside the sometimes insular nature of university campus life.
Could constant comparison be a factor?
In her insightful TED talk, Dominique Thompson, a former university GP who has heard from thousands of students about mental difficulties says it is crucial for students to stop viewing everything in life as a competition.5 According to her, comparing ourselves to others all the time only leads to a toxic form of perfectionism which leads to being terrified of failing at anything at all. This tendency to compare though is far less prevalent in Dutch culture. One of the key reasons attributed to happiness amongst Dutch teens is the tendency to not constantly compare oneself to others academically or socially.6
A new parenting style could be the first step
‘Helicopter Parenting’ is something we’ve been researching at Health Action Campaign, as US studies suggest it increases the risk of student mental distress – perhaps because, in seeking to protect their children from risk, parents are reducing their opportunities to develop resilience and coping skills.7 Over protective parenting may also make the transition to living independently at university more of a challenge. It seems however that the Dutch style of parenting is different, meaning there is a less of a sudden ‘cliff-edge’ change when young people leave home to go to university.
Dutch parenting is very pragmatic and parents’ main concern is raising their children to be independent and to learn from their own experiences. They are not afraid to openly discuss issues such as drugs and alcohol, but they do not ‘lecture’ their children. Perhaps a more collaborative parent-child approach to parenting that recognises the realities of growing up could foster more autonomy and self-confidence among young people, better preparing them for living away from home for the first time.8
Student mental distress is a complex and multi-faceted issue, but perhaps these insights from our Dutch counterparts can help inform the direction we look to take in the UK.
William Bate January 2020
This article was first published as a blog on the website of SMARTEN, a national research network funded by UK Research and Innovation, focusing on Student Mental Health in Higher Education.
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