Almost one in three first-year students at the University of Leuven experience mental health problems – 31% compared to only 18% who suffer physical complaints including allergies and acne.
The figures are contained in the university’s annual report for 2018, just published. The section on the report on the student health centre includes information on a survey carried out of first-year students, in general, young people aged 17-18 entering higher education for the first time.
The centre in 2018 saw 6,820 students in 13,390 consultations, with international students making up more than one-third (34.5%) of those making use of the centre. The vast majority – 93% – were from the main university itself, the largest single group (43%) made up of students from the human and social sciences, more or less evenly split between bachelors and masters students, with doctoral students accounting for only 15%.
The 31% of students complaining of psychological problems includes a wide range of different complaints: fear of failure, sleep disturbances, loneliness and difficulty adjusting, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders and suicidal ideation. Only 2.6% were currently being treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist.
By contrast, only 18% complained of physical problems, including back pain, allergies, acne, migraine and other headaches.
Women in these consultations outnumber men by two to one – 66% to 34%. Most are Belgian nationals, with only 21% international students.
The centre offers first- and second-line help. In the first line, information evenings on sleep, two groups on anxiety and two workshops on stress management. In the second line, a variety of groups on fear of failure, procrastination, problems with interactions with others (including two groups in English) and groups on mindful eating, social skills, ADHD, anxiety, depression and addiction.
Interviewed by De Morgen, Ronny Bruffaerts, professor of psychiatry at Leuven university, welcomed the results. “The important thing is that students are ready to speak,” he said.
The results, he said, are not surprising. The university has carried out an inquiry of first-years since 2012, and the figure of one in three is constant. In fact, he said, the same proportion shows up in studies dating back to the 1930s.
In fact, he told the paper, the figures among university students are better than among their contemporaries outside of the academic world, largely as a result of the social contacts involved in student life, both inside and outside of class.
And the problems also in many cases disappear with time. “You mustn’t forget that an enormous amount is demanded of these young people between 18 and 24. There is no other period in life when so much is demanded in terms of psychological development. In a period of a few years, young people have to adapt to a whole new living environment, make friends and succeed with their studies.”