Foto: Eigen beeld

VU to open new walk-in counselling service for students with mental health issues

Marjolein de Jong17 May 2021

Arne Popma, a VU alumnus and currently a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UMC, is one of the co-founders of the @ease foundation. „It’s such a shame that young people are experiencing psychological distress because it’s taking too much time to find the support they need,’ he says. 

What would you say @ease adds to the existing landscape of mental health services?

„We know that around 75 per cent of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 25. It can then take up to between five and seven years before these young people actually get to see a mental health professional. The reasons for this are shame, the stigma around mental health issues, ignorance, inability to navigate the system, or endless waiting lists."

„With a team of child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychologists, we surveyed young people to find out what they would be looking for if they were to find themselves in a situation of distress. It turned out that what they most wanted was a place they could walk into, without needing to make an appointment, and speak to a volunteer anonymously and free of charge. We are now getting ready to open the fourth facility based on this principle within the VU community."

„We are available online and by telephone, and our facilities are staffed by volunteers who are supported by a mental health professional. We can also accommodate people who need more than a counselling session by referring them to other services. We’ve had a lot more people come in to see us since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including people with serious issues such as suicidal ideation and those with unsafe home environments. If someone is really experiencing serious problems, we create a safety plan for the immediate future."

Are those people in emergency situations still put on waiting lists?

„That depends on the situation. Here in the Netherlands, we fortunately have options available to help people with urgent problems move through the system faster and get them the referral they need. For people experiencing other types of problems, we try to make the appropriate arrangements until they can get an appointment with a mental health service. Once someone has reached out to us for support, we don’t abandon them. Our aim is not to treat people, but rather to try to come up with solutions to ease their emotional burdens. Sometimes you can accomplish things on a small scale, so the person will be relieved and trust you to find the appropriate care and support."

This is the second centre you’re opening in Amsterdam. Why do you think there is a growing need for these services?

„I was 18 years old when I began my studies at the VU, and in my second year I moved into student accommodation in Amsterdam. Although I have some very fond memories of that time in my life, I also felt lost a lot of the time. Fortunately, I also made many new friends during that time who were there to support me, and my years as a young adult would certainly have been very different without them."

Arne Popma

Image: Jeroen Dietz

„That’s why I feel a lot of empathy for the students who are now trying to build a life for themselves during this pandemic. This is compounded by the fact that people who are new to a place often don’t know where to go for mental health support, so we’re seeing a major increase in mental health issues, including loneliness, depression, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders. We expect to see around 1.5 times as many teens and young adults at @ease over the next two to three years who in fact need professional mental healthcare."

What do you think could be improved about the Dutch mental healthcare system?

„What we need to learn as practitioners, academics, and scientists is that we should not only listen to the young people we treat and interact with and find the right treatments for them, but we also need to think about how our mental health system is organised. We can create a system that is more efficient and effective and provide support that truly meets the needs of young people. A major advantage of @ease, for example, is that it’s a walk-in service, where you don’t need an appointment."

„Mental health services should be just as accessible and welcoming as, say, booking a city break or calling a cab in Amsterdam."

„Mental health services in the Netherlands are currently largely based on a commercially competitive model, where a variety of services are provided. Young people have a really hard time even finding out where to get support, as the system can be very confusing. Besides, if you’re already struggling with your mental health, how are you going to muster the energy to find out? Mental health services should be just as accessible and welcoming as, say, booking a city break or calling a cab in Amsterdam. It’s such a shame that young people are experiencing mental distress because it’s taking too much time to find the support they need." 

How can you tell your system is working?

„Several people who previously used the services provided by @ease ended up becoming volunteers there themselves. And I don’t mean just one person, but really a fair number of people, which to me is the ultimate proof that we’re doing something right. It can also have a huge impact on the next young person who walks in the door to hear that the volunteer they’re talking to once was in a similar position as they are now. How encouraging is that?"

As part of the celebrations in honour of the Kuyperjaar (the 140th anniversary of the birth of the theologian and former Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper), the new @ease location will be officially opened on June 9. Students struggling with any kind of mental health issues can drop into VU@ease Thursday afternoons starting on June 10. They can seek support from their peers, who have been specially trained by the professionals at @ease. People who need more intensive support can be referred by @ease to professional mental health services.

Are you having suicidal thoughts, or do you know someone who is suicidal? Contact 113 online or call 0900 0113.