University students face higher depression risk, study warns

Monitoring Desk

NEW YORK: In a recent study, university students have been identified as a group more susceptible to depression and anxiety compared to their peers who opt for immediate entry into the workforce.

The study, published in the Lancet Public Health and commissioned by the Department for Education, challenges previous assumptions that students’ mental health is equivalent to or better than that of non-students.

Dr Tayla McCloud, the first author of the study and a researcher in UCL’s psychiatry department, suggested that the link between university enrollment and poor mental health might be attributed to “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context.”

She noted that while university students typically come from more privileged backgrounds, their mental health outcomes are still concerning and warrant further investigation.

Financial challenges

The 2023 academic year has presented university students with unprecedented financial challenges. Not only are they grappling with rising costs due to inflation, but they are also facing an average rent increase of 8%, which far exceeds the average maintenance loan in many cities.

Dr Gemma Lewis, the lead author of the study and an associate professor at UCL’s school of psychiatry, emphasized the potential long-term consequences of poorer mental health during university years.

Lewis stated, “The first couple of years of higher education are a crucial time for development, so if we could improve the mental health of young people during this time, it could have long-term benefits for their health and wellbeing, as well as for their educational achievement and longer-term success.”

Mental health disparity

The research paper also revealed that by the age of 25, the difference in mental health between graduates and non-graduates had disappeared.

It was suggested that if the potential mental health risks associated with higher education could be eliminated, the incidence of depression and anxiety among individuals aged 18-19 could be reduced by 6%.

 Key findings

The study utilized data from the Longitudinal Studies of Young People in England, which included 4,832 individuals born in 1989-90 and 6,128 participants born in 1998-99. In both groups, just over half attended higher education.

The researchers found a small difference in symptoms of depression and anxiety among students and non-students at age 18-19, even after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status, parents’ education, and alcohol use.

These findings echo research from King’s College London, which discovered that reported mental health problems among university students had nearly tripled between 2016-17 and 2022-23, surging from 6% to 16%. This increase, particularly pronounced among female and non-binary students, coincided with the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Furthermore, the research revealed that among students considering dropping out of university, the proportion citing financial distress had risen from 3.5% to 8% between 2022 and 2023.

Additionally, there was a gradual increase in the rate of mental health difficulties as students undertook more paid work during term time.

This study sheds light on the critical issue of mental health among university students, emphasizing the need for targeted interventions and support to ensure the well-being and success of young adults during their higher education journey.