Diana van Bergen. Photo by Reyer Boxem

The scientist Suicides might increase

Isolation is driving students to despair

Diana van Bergen. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Doctors and researchers fear that the isolation young people are feeling will lead to an increase in suicides. Already, more people have been asking for help, says Diana van Bergen. ‘The signs are here. We have to do something.’
30 March om 9:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 30 March 2021
om 9:29 uur.
March 30 at 9:29 AM.
Last modified on March 30, 2021
at 9:29 AM.

Door Christien Boomsma

30 March om 9:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 30 March 2021
om 9:29 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

March 30 at 9:29 AM.
Last modified on March 30, 2021
at 9:29 AM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio »

Background coordinator and science editor
Full bio »

UG associate professor of pedagogy Diana van Bergen says something is going on. Sure, we could all pretend that life is a little unpleasant right now but that everything is basically fine otherwise. Except sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes things go wrong. And what happens when students can no longer handle the isolation they’re in?

‘There was a student who was doing an exam’, says Van Bergen. ‘In the space where she was supposed to answer a question, she wrote: “I’m not doing well at all. I can’t handle it anymore.”‘

Van Bergen was shocked. She emailed the student, giving her advice, links to places that might help her. Her research focuses on psycho-social well-being and suicidality among young people. She’s also closely involved with suicide hotline 113. In other words: she knows the signs. 

The student didn’t respond to her email.

I’m not doing well at all

‘I specifically looked for her during the online resit’, Van Bergen says. ‘But I couldn’t find her. I emailed her again. Fortunately, she did respond to that one. She said she still wasn’t doing well, but that she’d realised that she needed to go out and see people more.’

The fact that a student decided to share something so personal instead of answering the exam question shows that she was feeling completely overwhelmed. Van Bergen says she’s not the only one who’s been seeing the signs. Many students are having an extremely hard time.

More suicides

Every year, between fifty and sixty teenagers in the Netherlands take their own life. That number is higher among people aged twenty to thirty, the age group most students are in, and this number has been going up over the past few years. It was 148 in 2010, rose to 175 in 2016, and in 2019, it was 200. 

The number of suicides is still higher in older people, but the steady increase can be seen among young people, especially when we look at the numbers per 100,000 residents. Only 2019 is slightly better.

What about 2020, the year of covid? Hotline 113 said the total number of suicides has not increased. It’s possible that’s because while we’re currently in a pandemic, there’s no crisis of an economic nature, which is the biggest trigger of suicide among adults.

Young people aren’t faring as well. The suicide hotline received an increased number of requests; it rose from three hundred in January 2020 to between four and five hundred in January 2021. 70 percent of the people asking for help were under thirty. Emergency services have also sounded the alarm, as they’ve seen more young people end up in hospital because of a suicide attempt.

Escalating emotions

It’s no surprise, says Van Bergen. ‘We’re talking about young people who have only just left their parents. They’re trying to create a life for themselves without the rest of their family. They have to create bonds with their peers, people other than their parents’, she says. 

Young people also tend to see the world in black and white. Emotions can quickly escalate. They might think that no one loves them, that no one would miss them. ‘But of course someone would miss them. Objectively speaking, the thoughts they have simply aren’t true’, says Van Bergen. ‘But how can we reach out in time to tell them?’

Studying is a social activity, but not right now

It doesn’t help students one bit if their parents say they love them when they feel like none of their peers even like them and when they scroll through their Instagram feed feeling lonely and forgotten while it looks like everyone else is getting through lockdown just fine.

Students tend to forge those new, necessary bonds during their studies. They go to class, meet new people at their student associations or at ACLO. ‘Studying is a social activity’, says Van Bergen. ‘You spend time together in class, getting coffee, having dinner. But now right now.’

Twice as many problems

And so young people keep growing increasingly sad. The age group of people under thirty report almost twice as many problems as other groups, saying they worry and feel tense and down. When it comes to trouble focusing and feelings of loneliness, this group’s problems are three times as bad, the Lifelines Corona barometer shows. An UKrant survey of nearly a thousand UG students showed that more than 90 percent feel lonely, with 58 percent of them feeling like this either regularly or all the time. Older people, on the other hand, are feeling better and less lonely than normal. 

That’s worrying, says Van Bergen. ‘Loneliness and sadness are prime predictors of suicidal thoughts and attempts’, she says. ‘It suggests we might see an increase.’

For 113, Van Bergen studied a peak in suicides among young people in 2017, when it looked like there was a sudden spike. The situation has since levelled, but the conversations she had with parents and other bereaved parties painted a painful picture of young people’s weak spots.

‘There was one group you’d definitely find among students, as well’, says Van Bergen. ‘Perfectionist girls who always want to be the best, either in sports, ballet, or school.’ These young women will have a hard time dealing with anything that goes wrong. ‘It often goes hand in hand with an eating disorder or depression.’

As the depression gets worse, this can lead to problems studying. ‘These women can’t handle that’, says Van Bergen. ‘I see them struggle.’

No connection

The international study Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children shows that the number of young people that’s feeling stressed has doubled to 35 percent since 2001. This feeling does not go away as they move from high school to university. 

Loneliness can predict suicidal thoughts

There is another group that’s at risk, says Van Bergen: people who have a hard time making connections anyway. People who are socially a little inept and who don’t feel like the group accepts them. ‘If they can’t hack it in school and have to drop out, it can impact them severely.’ Once again, they’ve ‘failed’ in comparison to their peers. 

Universities are complicit in this, says Van Bergen. ‘We tell students with a negative BSA that they’re not good enough and that they have to leave.’

The problems already existed, and they just keep adding on, says Van Bergen. Add to that this covid year, which has been particularly isolating for young people, and the situation can turn harmful. ‘I think lecturers and educational directors underestimated that. They mainly focused on the quality of education.’

Sadness leads to passivity

Another thing: the worse someone is doing, the harder it is to fix it. Sadness and loneliness lead to passivity. ‘When people should really be working harder to solve their problems. But trying to figure stuff out when all you want to do is pull the covers up over your head is really difficult.’

At least Van Bergen’s student understood that she needed to see more people to stop her life from being so joyless and grey. But there are plenty of others, the associate professor says. Students who are unable to fix their problems and slowly slip away, with no one the wiser.  

So she’s worried. She hasn’t met any of her students and doesn’t know what they look like, since she teaches her classes online on Blackboard. She does feel we should be doing more to help these people, but she’s not sure what. She’d like to know what the students themselves want before she starts any projects. 

‘But the signs are there’, she says. ‘And that means we should do something. We have to come up with a way to ask young people what they need.’

If you’re feeling sad or lonely, please talk to someone who can help. That could be your mentor or study advisor, a therapist, or a counsellor at an online mental health service like Kooth, which has resources and is completely anonymous.  

To chase away the loneliness, UKrant and HanzeMag are organising the Friend-o-matic Pubquiz on April 1, which is sponsored by Grunnbier and Baxbier. Enrolment is now closed.