Sharp deterioration in girls' mental health

An unprecedented decline in mental health took place among girls in the Netherlands between 2017 and 2021. Researchers write this in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) report, which presents the results of 20 years of research into the well-being and health of young people in the Netherlands. On Wednesday, Sept. 14, the report will be presented to Her Majesty Queen Máxima during the symposium 'Jong in de 21ste eeuw'.

HBSC-rapport 2021
Cover of the HBSC report

Lead researcher Gonneke Stevens of Utrecht University: ‘Between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of girls in secondary education with emotional problems increased from 28 to 43 %. Among girls in 8th grade, this increased from 14 to 33 % during this period. There is also cause for concern in other areas.’ Girls in 2021 reported not only many more emotional problems than four years earlier, but also more behavioural problems and hyperactivity/attention problems. Mental health has also declined among boys. For example, the grades given by both girls and boys for their lives have never been as low as in 2021: an average of 7.1. Whereas in previous years, this figure was over 7.5, and even an 8 in 2001. Yet the magnitude of the decline in mental health among boys is disproportionate to the decline among girls. According to the researchers, these results underline the importance of the new government's approach Mental Health: from all of us, which pays specific attention to young people.

Pressure from schoolwork tripled in 20 years

As between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of students experiencing pressure from schoolwork increased significantly during the 2017-2021 period. In fact, over the past 20 years, this percentage has tripled. Stevens: ‘In 2001, only 16 % of secondary school youth reported that they experience (quite a bit of) pressure from schoolwork. By 2021, this has risen to 45 %. Here, too, we see a more unfavorable development for girls than for boys.’

For primary school girls, the percentage who reported being frequently bullied online increased from 1 to 6 %.

Good social relationships

Ever since the first measurement in 2001, young people in the Netherlands have stood out for their good social relationships with their parents, classmates and friends. This is still the case in 2021. For example, the percentage of young people who say they can talk very easily with their fathers, mothers or best friends is as high in 2021 as it was in 2017. However, girls in secondary school did become somewhat less positive between 2017 and 2021 about support from friends, the atmosphere between classmates, and their relationships with teachers. The percentage of adolescents who report to frequently bully or being bullied online also increased between 2017 and 2021. For example, for primary school girls, the percentage indicating they are frequently bullied online increased from 1 to 6 percent. In the same group, the percentage of problematic social media users increased from 2 to 5 % between 2017 and 2021.

Influence of the corona crisis

The deterioration in mental health among (especially) girls is probably significantly related to the corona crisis. Stevens: ‘But this does not mean that the problem is solved once the corona crisis is a thing of the past.’ According to the Utrecht youth researcher, it is quite possible that the developed mental vulnerability among girls does not simply disappear. And neither is a decrease in the percentage of students experiencing pressure from schoolwork necessarily to be expected. ‘The educational arrears resulting from the corona crisis may have been a catalyst of a pre-existing social development: the increased importance that young people, their parents and society in general attach to performing in school,’ Stevens said. 

Listen to the podcast about the HBSC survey

In the podcast JongGeleerd (Dutch), project leader of the HBSC survey Gonneke Stevens talks with president of the VO-raad Henk Hagoort about the results of the survey and what this means for education. What can schools and teachers do to support young people in the face of increasing pressure from schoolwork and mental health issues?

Boys smoked and drank more often than girls in earlier years, but these differences disappeared in 2021.

Smoking and alcohol use still too high

After a long period in which smoking and alcohol use among young people declined, it has not declined further in recent years. The percentage of young people who smoke or drink is still too high in 2021. For example, of the 15 and 16-year-olds in 2021, 42 and 60 %, respectively, drank in the last month. And these young people drink a lot. 74 to 83 % of these alcohol users have had five or more glasses of alcohol on one occasion in the last month. In addition, in 2021, one in 10 young people have smoked in the last month. Moreover, it is notable that where boys smoked and drank alcohol more often than girls in earlier years, these differences have disappeared in 2021. 

The HBSC survey has been conducted every four years since 2001 by researchers from Utrecht University, the Trimbos Institute and the Social and Cultural Planning Office. The HBSC Report 2021, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, also covers other themes, such as eating behaviour, exercise, sexual behaviour and gaming. For all themes, differences by age, gender, education level, migration background, family form and family well-being are studied.