Do young people suffer more mentally? It depends on who (and how) you ask

According to the CBS, the number of young people with mental health problems did not increase significantly in 2020. Are studies that show the opposite exaggerated?

A small graduation party on campus. (Photo: Dalia Madi)

Student organisations have been warning for years about increasing stress and burn-out complaints among their members, all the more in times of coronavirus. But Statistics Netherlands (CBS) has not seen a significant rise in the number of psychologically unhealthy young people for quite some time. Surely the year of the crisis 2020 was different, wasn’t it?

The answer is no, as figures published on Friday have shown. While it’s true that the number of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 with mental health problems rose somewhat over the past year, from 12.2 percent in the period 2017-2019 to 13.8 percent in 2020, according to Statistics Netherlands the change is not significant. The same is true of all other age groups.

Only if you look at the entire population do you see the number of people with psychological problems increase in the last quarter of 2020 by one-half percentage point compared to the last quarter of 2019. “That is a significant rise, but no real cause for concern”, Statistics Netherlands researcher Tanja Traag explains. “A little jump in the quarterly figures between two quarters has also occurred occasionally in past years.”

The Dutch were able to get through 2020 reasonably well in terms of mental health

That the new figures go against all kinds of other statements about how young people are suffering from coronavirus stress is something that Traag realises too. “Perhaps the question is whether the interpretation put forward by some of the other studies is completely accurate.”

Statistics Netherlands has been using the same questionnaire to measure mental health in the population for years now. Therefore the figures can be seen as a benchmark, Traag points out. “There are also a lot of studies now being published that were only conducted in 2020, with questions that specifically deal with the coronavirus crisis. This may call up different associations among the respondents.”

In a report that was published on Wednesday, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) also raised the alarm about the mental wellbeing of young people and students. The researchers based their study on data from a big, long-standing panel of more than 2,400 people, including a small group of 300 young people aged 16 to 29. It demonstrates that the whole population of the Netherlands was able to get through 2020 reasonably well in terms of mental health.

But the results are different for certain groups, according to the SCP. Young people in particular seem to be suffering due to the coronavirus crisis. For example, at the end of 2020, a third of students and pupils indicated “low psychological wellbeing”. In preceding years, that figure was about a quarter.

How can that be reconciled with the figures from Statistics Netherlands? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the two studies contradict each other, head researcher and health psychologist Peter van der Velden of CentERdata and Tilburg University says.

‘If you highlighted specific groups, you might find more problems’

“It really depends on what exactly was being investigated”, he explains. “What kind of questions were asked? What kind of analyses were done, and which variables did you identify? If you highlighted specific groups, you might also find more problems.”

Van der Velden points to his own current research as an example. “We are seeing there that 16- to 20-year-olds clearly did suffer more over the past year than people of the same age in 2016 and 2012. But for the group of 20- to 35-year-olds that is not the case.”

In any event, it is important to look at what the situation was before the coronavirus crisis, Van der Velden asserts. In a different recently published study, he and his team compared measurements from the end of 2018, 2019 and 2020. “We kept seeing exactly the same pattern. The mental health of the adult population is therefore fairly stable.” This corresponds to the findings of the SCP.

Sick and tired
Van der Velden warns that psychological problems are often thrown into one big pile. “Everyone is sick and tired of the lockdown. We all want to go out for diner again or to a concert. But that doesn’t mean that you’re suffering from depression.”

Which does not detract from the fact that he, too, is worried about the younger generation. “I see it in my own students. Because of all the restrictions, you can’t give them the kind of education they need. There’s the threat that this will be a lost year, and it’s happening to them at an age when, normally speaking, you make all kinds of contacts and work on forming your own identity. That really doesn’t mean that they all need therapy, but it is certainly not good for their development.”

HOP, Evelien Flink
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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