Students suffer during pandemic but no rise in serious psychological complaints

Friday, April 2, 2021 — The Vrije Universiteit Brussel took the initiative to personally call all of their students who wanted to be contacted, to give them a boost during the Covid crisis and gauge their well-being. A team of trained psychology master’s students had phone conversations with more than 7,100 students. The students reported feeling worse than before the pandemic began, and there is an increase in students with mild psychological complaints, such as feeling gloomy and restless. Professor Imke Baetens: “Fortunately, we do not see an increase in serious psychological complaints that require professional help.’ She organised the campaign with Professor Johan Vanderfaeillie.

Vanderfaeillie: “Students’ subjective well-being is now lower than before the start of the Covid pandemic. Students have experience the past month as a distinctly difficult time in their lives.’

Psychological complaints of students called

- No psychological complaints: 25%

- Very mild complaints, e.g. “I have felt gloomy sometimes in the past 30 days?: 55%

- Moderate to severe complaints for which professional help is recommended: 18%.

These students were informed about the offer of services such as first-line psychologists.

- More serious complaints such as overwhelm, crisis, suicidal thoughts: 2%.

These students, with their permission, will be contacted again by Brussels University Consultation Center (BRUCC) for referral to specialised services.

7,100 students called

In total, more than 7,100 students have been called, approximately half of the students who could have potentially been called. Twenty percent were unreachable by phone after three attempts. Thirty percent had indicated in advance that they did not want to participate. They had seen no interest or no need for an interview because they were doing well. Johan Vanderfaeillie: “Several students indicated that they would prefer that their 15 minutes be used to help others in need.’

140 master’s students calling

The calling campaign was conducted by 140 master’s students in psychology, who had all taken the psychological interviewing course. They received additional training and were assigned as job students to work for 26 hours during March. Throughout the period, they were supported by telephone advice from healthcare professionals. Each week, they had the opportunity to share and discuss anonymised experiences and fine-tune their skills.

Jacoba Cuppens: “We were professionally prepared and it was rewarding work. Even when they had no complaints, students were generally happy to have a personal interview.’

June Vereycken: “What was also remarkable, of course, is that we were called ourselves. I was delighted by that. Even though we are master’s students, it is good to be able to tell your story.’


VUB has a team of student psychologists who assist peers with student-specific psychological problems. Students can also be referred to other professional welfare agencies if necessary, such as BRUCC.

VUB takes an integrated and differentiated approach to student welfare. This is aimed at preventing psychological complaints, early detection of problems and preventing aggravation of psychological complaints.

For that purpose there are several tools. Students can work on their own with, for example, infographics on mental health, well-being comics, the CANVAS learning platform or digital e-health tools. There is also a group programme with workshops, trainings and Q&A sessions, as well as individual counselling to help students move forward autonomously and resiliently.

Sicco Wittermans Woordvoerder en persrelaties Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Vrije Universiteit Brussel is an internationally oriented university in Brussels, the heart of Europe. By providing excellent research and education on a human scale, VUB wants to make an active and committed contribution to a better society.

The World Needs You

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel assumes its scientific and social responsibility with love and decisiveness. That’s why VUB launched the platform De Wereld Heeft Je Nodig - The World Needs You, which brings together ideas, actions and projects based on six P s. The first P stands for People , because that’s what it’s all about: giving people equal opportunities, prosperity, welfare, respect. Peace is about fighting injustice, big and small, in the world. Prosperity combats poverty and inequality. Planet stands for actions on biodiversity, climate, air quality, animal rights... With Partnership , VUB is looking for joint actions to make the world a better place. The sixth and last P is for Poincaré , the French philosopher Henri Poincaré, from whom VUB derives its motto that thinking should submit to nothing except the facts themselves. VUB is an ’urban engaged university’, strongly anchored in Brussels and Europe and working according to the principles of free research.­eftjenodig

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