Student activism appears to significantly boost student wellbeing and sense of belonging, however the study also showed that female students, LGBT students and international students score lower on mental health.
The department of Health, Psychology and Technology at the University of Twente conducted a study into the wellbeing of all University of Twente students in the spring of 2019. The study was prompted by the fact that there was a lot of attention nationwide for the psychological wellbeing of students in higher education. Combined with the fact that UT already intended to expand on its plans for studying with a disability and create a University Plan for Student Wellbeing, there was cause to ask the department to conduct research.
The study is part of the activities set up previously to promote student wellbeing, such as individual and group supervision of students and attention to wellbeing within specific degree programmes such as technical medicine, biomedical technology, creative technology and mechanical engineering. The survey was conducted by psychology students and was led by researcher Dr. Saskia Kelders, whose areas of study include positive psychology.
The results from the survey give insight into various aspects of students’ mental health, such as stress, burn-out, depression, anxiety, wellbeing and sleep. Predictors for problems with stress and wellbeing are also discussed, which include: stress mindset, loneliness, a sense of belonging, intolerance for uncertainty, resilience and fear of missing out.
The study also reviewed the relationship between stress and wellbeing and substance use and compulsive internet usage. Also clearly shown are the groups that run the highest risk of developing psychological problems during their studies.
Finally, this study provides insight into how many students have already signed up for supervision or therapy, what their preferences are regarding this type of support and possible avenues for the university to explore when it comes to improving the wellbeing of its students.
Out of all University of Twente students, 15% participated in the study. A grand total of 1682 students with an average age of 22. No information on wellbeing is available for the 85% who did not participate.
Depression or anxiety
A third of all respondents showed mild symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both. Another third indicated to experience these symptoms in a moderate to more severe form.
Substance use and internet use
Compared to other nationwide studies, the UT survey shows that substance use at the university is slightly higher compared to other universities in the Netherlands. Over half of the survey’s respondents show signs of compulsive internet usage. However, the study was not able to conclude whether these results correlate to mental health issues.
Predictors of stress and other problems with wellbeing
When it comes to predictors of stress and other problems with students’ wellbeing, UT students appear to experience intolerance of uncertainty more than students elsewhere. They also appear more uncertain about future events and experience more anxiety which causes them to feel inhibited. At the same time it also appears that a relatively high number of UT students feel lonely, and that, in general, feeling connected and having a sense of belonging is lower at UT compared to other institutes for higher education.
Of all respondents 25% indicated that they have used facilities such as supervision, guidance, therapy from a psychologist or help from a Study Advisor or external party in the past.
Women, LGBT, international students
Female students scored the lowest on the survey, as well as students who identify as a member of the LGBT community. Master’s students enjoy a slightly higher level of wellbeing than Bachelor’s students. The group of international students also showed a lower wellbeing score and appear to suffer more from depression, loneliness and feeling a lack of belonging.
Students with disabilities mainly score lower in the area of wellbeing in general, depression and restlessness.
Does student activism promote wellbeing?
Students involved in student activism demonstrate higher levels of wellbeing and a sense of belonging and are less intolerant to uncertainty.
Based on the results, the researchers are calling for more prevention, continuous monitoring, attention to psychological wellbeing in education and a special focus on at-risk groups.
The recommendations form the basis of a University Plan for Student Wellbeing. This plan is further discussed with various parties within the University of Twente, including the University Education Committee, the Executive Board and the University Council.
Integration is a key aspect of activities that promote wellbeing. Disciplines that already focus on the wellbeing of students need to make improvements in terms of how they relate to each other and need to align their initiatives. In addition to developing new initiatives, current activities to boost wellbeing need to be made more visible, such as the International Support Group, the Student Union buddy programme for new students, the breakfast sessions with students, the introduction programme for internationals, cooperation efforts between the Student Union and health insurer VGZ in the context of offering preventative workshops. In terms of substance use, the university already focuses on promoting conscious use of and, if possible, prevention of drugs and alcohol, by means of the code of conduct drawn up by student associations and the guidelines applied by associations for the consumption of alcohol. At UT level, a comprehensive plan for tackling substance use among students is already being developed.
The proposals for a comprehensive approach include increasing awareness and improving the provision of information about guidance and facilities available to students. Professionals must also receive better training in recognizing signs that might lead to mental health problems. Information sessions about wellbeing, opening the topic up for discussion and using digital self-help tools are also options for helping students. In the coming months, UT plans to further promote student wellbeing in cooperation with students themselves and any steps taken will be based in part on the positive psychology research group’s study. The university intends to periodically repeat the study.
Thom Palstra, Rector Magnificus, gives the following reaction: “The wellbeing of our students is of great importance to the students but also to us as a university in order to function efficiently. Students have to be physically and mentally fit in order to perform well in their chosen degree programmes and in their social lives. I am very pleased with the concrete proposals offered by the researchers to help improve student wellbeing. The study offers a number of specific recommendations to help combat problems. Participation in student activism and reducing social isolation are key. By putting the recommendations to good use, we can make progress in improving student wellbeing.”