The pandemic and students’ mental health- why do we not seek help?
Anouk Brekhof | oktober 20, 2021
February 27th, the first Covid-19 infection in the Netherlands is reported. Now, approximately 1.5 years later, we are still battling the virus. With the pandemic not only physical complaints, but mental complaints have been rising, specifically among vulnerable groups like adolescents. Having heard first hand stories of young people in Groningen who were struggling with feelings of anxiety, depression and disconnection, I decided to start a photo series, Isolation Z. For the series, I went to students to talk about how they experienced the pandemic mentally. Together with the portrait photos, I published their stories online on Instagram.
Many students from all over the country reacted. Among the messages was one of Wake up Student Coaching and long story short, we decided to research and map how the corona pandemic affect the student population mentally, focusing on Groningen as a case study. How are the students affected mentally by the pandemic? How many students seek help for their problems? Most specifically: what are barriers to help-seeking for mental complaints?
Simple, but concerning starts
Let’s start with the numbers. Previous scientific research already showed that adolescents are a group vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, depression and disconnection during the pandemic. Among young people, rates of disordered eating and substance abuse were increasing. According to our research, in Groningen almost 60% of all students indicated an increase in mental complaints during the pandemic. Especially those who already had a history of mental complaints, or were suffering from serious mental health problems indicated a serious increase of mental complaints (83%). Interestingly enough, though mental complaints have risen, help-seeking through psychologists and clinicians have not.
Talking about mental health, or seeking help for mental problems can be beneficial. But what does it really mean? Help-seeking behaviour can be divided in two different types: formal and informal help-seeking behaviour. Formal help-seeking behaviour is aimed at seeking assistance from professional health care providers, such as clinicians and psychologists. Informal help-seeking would be seen as talking to your friends and relatives about your mental health. After collecting information on the prevalence of mental health problems in Groningen among students, we looked into reasons to not seek help, both formally and informally. Based on previous research, we formulated our hypothesis: we expected that stigma acted as the main barrier to help-seeking behaviour.
Stigma means the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness. It often comes from a lack of understanding or fear. There are different types of stigma: (1) public stigma, which involves the general public opinion and attitude that prevail about mental illness and (2) self-stigma, which refers to the negative opinions and attitude that people with mental illness have about their mental problems. Without getting into too much scientific detail, we expected that both types of stigma cause a decrease in both formal help-seeking behaviour and informal help-seeking behaviour. In other words, once you experience higher feelings of stigma, you are less likely to discuss your mental health with a professional, or even your friends and relatives.
What we found was somewhat surprising and contradictory to our expectations. Both types of stigma did not influence the decision of students in Groningen whether to seek help for their mental complaints. It was not even listed as one of the top barriers. The biggest barriers to help-seeking that were listed? Unavailability of resources and fear of the intervention (6.4% and 14.9%), topped by ‘not wanting to complain’ (49.6%!).
Half of the students that took part in our research indicate that they do not seek help for their mental problems, both informal and formal, because they don’t want to ‘complain’ about their mental health. Our findings therefore suggest that we might have to take a different perspective and focus on researching a construct that better touches upon devaluing personal mental health problems. Mental healthcare providers and institutions should take devaluing personal mental health as a barrier to help-seeking into account. They should aim to reach those who devalue their mental health problems, one of the groups being students. Finally, you can play a role in this. Do you talk with your friends and family about their mental health? Or about your own? One important lesson you might take from reading this blogpost is therefore to reach out and stay connected in times of isolation.
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