Double interview

Stress and pressure to succeed among young people

Foto van Margot Peeters en Michelle van der Horst

Social scientists Margot Peeters and Michelle van der Horst are both UU alumni and are collaborating on a theme that is now proving especially relevant in the Utrecht region: stress and school drop-out. Margot works at the university within what is known as the ‘regional Knowledge Centre Youth & Family Central’; she focuses primarily on secondary-schoolpupils. After graduating from UU, Michelle took a job at the Trimbos institute and her contribution to the research is concerned with students.

The Knowledge Centre strives to bring together existing knowledge on contemporary social themes. It is a network in which young people, parents, educators, youth care professionals and institutes such as the Public Health Services, schools and municipalities participate and cooperate. The purpose of the Knowledge Centre is to involve these target groups and institutions both in the identification of such social issues and in the search for solutions.

Surely gathering existing knowledge isn’t the only goal of such a Knowledge Centre: will the next step be action? ‘Absolutely’, Margot answers. ‘The knowledge gained can lead to anything from adjustments in municipal policy to interventions by mental health and youth care institutions, or to learning programmes at schools and so on. Those actions, in turn, will then be evaluated within the Knowledge Centre to see whether they are suitable for broader application. i.e., in other cities or at other schools.’

Portret van Michelle van der Horst

Michelle: ‘We work with monitor studies at the Trimbos institute to gain a picture of pressure to succeed among students. To that end, we also cooperate with parties such as the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) and student organisation. But we emphatically want to talk with, rather than about, the stakeholders, i.e., the young people themselves. In that way, we are like a similar study Margot conducted at the university, which dealt with stress among young children ages 10 to 18.’

‘Young people are increasingly struggling with the pressure to succeed and unhealthy levels of stress’, Margot confirms. ‘I specified “unhealthy” because there is also such a thing as “healthy stress”, of course. Learning to live independently, learning how to plan, starting your life as a student... these are steps you have to go through, and a bit of stress can be helpful in that regard. But for some adolescents, stress gets in the way of their ability to go to school or pass their classes or complete their education. By gathering existing knowledge in this area, we hope to do our part to enhance the mental resilience of young people.’

Both Margot and Michelle are exploring not only the pressure to succeed among young people, but their use of substances as well. Does a correlation exist between that theme and the pressure to succeed and stress? ‘Absolutely, but that’s something we need to be more aware of’, Margot says. ‘Many institutions currently view substance use and stress as independent phenomena. Within city governments, for  instance, drugs fall under the heading of ‘Safety’ and school drop-out rates are a matter for the ‘Youth’ department. And as a result, you have many public officials working on the same topic without knowing what their counterparts are doing.’

Portret Margot Peeters

Stress and pressure to succeed are phenomena that seem to have become especially glaring in the last five years or so. And perhaps even more so, post-COVID: the social and behavioural sciences have apparently added the term ‘lockdown stress’ to their vocabulary. Michelle: ‘In recent years, stress has certainly played a greater role in students’ lives, a development that has only been magnified by COVID-19. Some students have blossomed during lockdown; they really enjoyed being able to study quietly at home and not having to watch what they say and do in order to fit in. But on the other hand, there’s another group that experienced loneliness and had trouble sleeping. The pitfall here is that we think that as COVID becomes less of an issue, those problems will resolve themselves as well — but that’s not the case. Stress was there before the pandemic, as various local student monitors have shown, and it will still be there even after COVID is gone.’

But where do that stress and pressure to succeed come from? And why have they increased in recent years? Margot suspects this has something to do with Dutch culture. ‘More and more adolescents are growing up in families with parents or siblings who have university degrees. That places a certain pressure on the young people.

Preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) is no longer enough”; it’s dismissed as subordinate to or less valuable than pre-university secondary school, even though society is highly dependent on those with vocational training. It’s how our bricklayers and plumbers get their skills. We hear this in the interviews we conduct as well, when young people say: “I’ve only got a VMBO diploma, so I’m not worth much.” That’s a terrible thing. Children are no longer allowed to pick something that makes them happy, that’s a good match for their knowledge and talents.’

Stress will still be there even after COVID is gone

Michelle: ‘And once their studies begin, that pressure continues. At that point, students are working hard to build their CVs. It’s no longer enough to just get your degree. You need to have worked part-time, spent time abroad... There’s an urge to say: take it easy, enjoy your time at uni. But that won’t work — they feel they have to succeed, or else.’The research being conducted within the Knowledge Centre is seamlessly aligned to what is now called 'Open Science’, one of the key themes of the university’s Strategic Plan for the next four years. Open Science is research that is not only conducted in cooperation with social partners, but where those partners also have a hand in determining the research agenda, designing and evaluating the research and where the newly-gained insights may lead to policy adjustments. How does this working method affect the scientist?

Michelle: ‘The university is actually doing the same kind of research we are at the Trimbos institute. We often publish our results in a factsheet which “the field” can then apply in their own work. The recommendations for municipal governments, neighbourhood centres, schools, Public Health Services or the young people themselves all call for different means of communication. For instance, a student organisation might say: “We don’t need the memo, just send us a video”.’

Grote foto Michelle van der Horst en Margot Peeters
In Open Science, the research question comes from society

Margot adds: ‘Normally, it’s the scientist who comes up with a research question. Then, to answer that question, the researcher collects data or compiles a survey. But in Open Science, the research question comes from society, and then we start looking around to see which data is available. Can the question be answered using that data; will we need additional data to do so; and can we apply the results in a larger context, not only locally but maybe nationally as well, or even at a European level? To actually do this, though’, Margot continues, ‘your employer has to allow you the space to work in that way. These days, many scientists are judged by how many articles or citations they have, but those aren’t the type of results you achieve with this kind of research. In Utrecht, fortunately, I’m given that space.’

Michelle van der Horst studied what used to be called General Social Sciences and is now Interdisciplinary Social Sciences in Utrecht, where Margot Peeters was one of her lecturers. Michelle’s Master’s thesis dealt with interventions and policy in connection with substance use among students. She has worked at the Trimbos Institute, where she serves as an academic staff member on the alcohol and drug prevention team, since 2019.

Margot Peeters completed her Research Master’s in Behavioural Science at Radboud University Nijmegen in 2009. In 2014, she took her doctorate from Utrecht University cum laude for a study that explored alcohol use among young people. As Assistant professor of Youth Studies, she now conducts research into the development of risk behaviour in adolescents and explores how social context may explain individual differences in this development.

Open Science at Utrecht University

Open Science is an international movement that is initiating the transition to open research and educational practices. To increase our impact, we are making our data and publications accessible and consulting with social parties, citizens and governments regarding the chosen topic of research, how it is conducted and the potential application of the results. The Utrecht University Open Science Programme (OSP) has been established in order to accelerate this transformation and facilitate the cultural shift within UU. The structure of the programme reflects the role of the research community and the diversity of its practices across the various strategic themes, faculties and disciplines. The transition to open science is one of pillars of the Strategic Plan 2021–2025 (entitled ‘Open outlook, open attitude, open science’) which was adopted by our university: Utrecht University.

The UNESCO definition of Open Science: ‘Open Science is aiming to make scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone, to increase scientific collaborations and sharing of information for the benefits of science and society.’