University students are a high-risk group for mental health problems, given that most cases of mental health problems have emerged by the age of 24 (Kessler, Berglund, Demler, Jin, Merikangas, & Walters, 2005; see also Kim-Cohen, Caspi, Moffitt, Harrington, Milne, & Poulton, 2003) and some research suggests that the prevalence of these problems is increasing (Institute for Public Policy and Research [IPPR], 2017).
In 2019, we asked 286 undergraduate students at a UK university questions about their mental health and quality of life (Jenkins, Ducker, Gooding, James, & Rutter-Eley, 2020). The study found that around 1 in 3 women and around 1 in 6 men screened positive for depression and nearly half the women and 1 in 6 men screened positive for an anxiety disorder.
These symptoms were strongly associated with poorer quality of life. In particular, more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression were associated with increased psychological distress alongside impaired social functioning and the ability to fulfil roles and responsibilities due to emotional problems. Further, the presence of both anxiety and depression symptoms (i.e., comorbidity) was associated with even greater impairment. The prevalence findings are in line with global estimates (e.g., Ibrahim, Kelly, Adams, & Glazebrook, 2013) although are limited by a relatively small sample size and restriction to one institution. However, as one of the few studies of this nature to be conducted in the UK, we hope to open up a line of communication and research to build greater understanding of student mental health and the factors that influence this.
This study raises awareness of both the prevalence of mental health problems and the impairment that can result. As noted above, the findings should be interpreted with caution, but complement reports from the Institute for Public Policy and Research that 94% of higher education institutions have documented an increase in demand for counselling services from their students (Thorley, 2017). It is hoped that by highlighting how prevalent and impairing mental health problems can be for students, initiatives around this are taken seriously and, further, the availability of safe and effective support services is communicated to those who need them. Further research could consider groups not well-represented in the current study, such as those from the LGBTQ+ community, as well as looking at factors which may increase students’ likelihood to engage with support services.
Children's Wellbeing Practitioner at AnDY Research Clinic
(Along with Rebecca Gooding, Megan James, and Emily Rutter-Eley).
Further reading on mental health and support services for students in the UK:
Ibrahim, A. K., Kelly, S. J., Adams, C. E., & Glazebrook, C. (2013). A systematic review of studies of depression prevalence in university students. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47, 391-400. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.11.015
Thorley, C. (2017). Not by Degrees: Improving Student Mental Health in the UK’s Universities, Institute for Public Policy and Research. Retrieved from https://www.ippr.org/files/2017-09/1504645674_not-by-degrees-170905.pdf
Jenkins, P. E., Ducker, I., Gooding, R., James, M., & Rutter-Eley, E. (2020). Anxiety and depression in a sample of UK college students: A study of prevalence, comorbidity, and quality of life. Journal of American College Health. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2019.1709474
Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593
Kim-Cohen, J., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Harrington, H.-L., Milne, B. J., & Poulton, R. (2003). Prior juvenile diagnoses in adults with mental disorder: Developmental follow-back of a prospective-longitudinal cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60, 709-717. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.60.7.709
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