The figures are alarming: the World Health Organization estimates that almost 800,000 people worldwide take their own lives each year. Young people are a particular risk group: after car accidents, suicide is the most common cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. This group at risk also includes students. Gunter Groen, a professor of psychology at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, plans to explore mental health and suicide prevention at universities in Southeast Asia in a research project entitled "Mental high – Mental Awareness at Higher Education Institutes" (only in German).
Prevention programmes for universities
"We know from our partners in Vietnam that prevention there is still in its infancy and that mental disorders continue to be heavily stigmatised", says Groen. There was great interest when he presented the project in Hanoi at a network meeting of the Erasmus programme of the European Union (EU) in 2019. "We were surprised at how good the response was, not only among psychologists and educationalists, but also among colleagues from entirely different fields", reports Groen. He adds that they are interested because they realise that there are students who have psychological problems but often cannot help them and feel unable to cope.
Suicide is a particularly pressing problem in Southeast Asia: the region has the world’s second-highest suicide rate after Europe, according to the WHO. Unlike in Europe, however, the numbers there have declined hardly at all over the past two decades. One of the goals of the research project is thus to raise awareness of the subject at universities and to make it easier for those affected to find help. "The project aims above all to increase public awareness of the importance of mental health", Groen explains. Besides campaign weeks to highlight the issue, the project could involve making training available to university members and providing low-threshold services such as peer advice.
Initial funding from the university
So far, the project is still in the planning phase. Groen and his doctor colleague Anja Dessauvagie are in contact with ten universities in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. "We will be conducting exploratory talks over the next few weeks; we will probably embark on further-reaching collaboration with two or three universities in Vietnam and two in other Southeast Asian countries", says Groen. The next step is to divide up the workload for preparing the research application to the EU’s Erasmus+ programme. This will also see the partner universities surveying their students to discover how much knowledge there already is about the subject of mental health and what student attitudes towards it are.
For the planning and application phase, the team has been provided with one year of initial funding from the university. This support is essential because professors at universities of applied sciences often have little time to devote to research activities on account of their considerable teaching commitments. When it comes to the "Mental high" project, Groen also benefits from his involvement in a previous project that focused on training nurses at hospitals in Zambia and South Africa to deal with questions of mental health. Consequently, he knows from experience how important it is to involve political decision-makers in the partner countries. "That is vital in order to highlight the issue in the first place", Groen remarks.
International network is growing
If the project receives funding, however, it will not only be students and teachers in Southeast Asia who benefit, but also those at the university in Hamburg. "The collaboration will help us to adopt a new perspective on our own prevention programmes, as well as develop new ideas tailored to the needs of our culturally diverse student body", explains Groen. At the same time, the HAW is expanding its network of cooperation partners, thereby creating opportunities for international exchanges between teachers and students.
With around 17,000 students and a wide range of subjects on offer, HAW Hamburg is one of Germany’s larger universities of applied sciences. Students can choose between 80 bachelor’s and master’s degree courses at four faculties: from design and media technology or bioengineering and environmental technology to vehicle and aircraft construction or social and health management. A total of 25 research groups work at the faculties and cooperate among themselves via the university’s five research and transfer centres. Furthermore, the HAW is also well connected internationally thanks to its 190 partner universities around the world.