June 12, 2024

University students are more at risk of depression and anxiety than their peers who go straight into work, according to a study, suggesting mental health may deteriorate due to the financial strain of higher education.

The research is the first to find evidence of slightly higher levels of depression and anxiety among students, and challenges earlier work suggesting that the mental health of students is the same as or better than their peers.

The first author of the study, Dr Tayla McCloud, a researcher in the psychiatry department at University College London (UCL), said the fact that the link between university and poor mental health had not been established in earlier studies could mean that it is due to “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context”.

As well as grappling with rising costs due to inflation, university students this year are facing unprecedented rent rises averaging at 8% and far outstripping the average maintenance loan in many cities.

McCloud said she would have ordinarily expected university students to have better mental health as they tend to be from more privileged backgrounds, making the results “particularly concerning” and requiring more research to pinpoint the risks facing students.

The lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis, associate professor at UCL’s school of psychiatry, said poorer mental health at university could have repercussions in later life.

She said: “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.”

The research paper, published in the Lancet Public Health and commissioned by the Department for Education, states that by the age of 25 the difference in mental health had disappeared between graduates and non-graduates.

The analysis suggested that if the potential mental health risks of attending higher education were eliminated, the incidence of depression and anxiety could be reduced by 6% among people aged 18-19.

The researchers used data from the Longitudinal Studies of Young People in England, which includes 4,832 young people born in 1989-90, who were aged 18-19 in 2007-9, and 6,128 participants born in 1998-99, aged 18-19 in2016-18. In both studies, just over half attended higher education.

Participants completed surveys about their mental health to investigate symptoms of depression, anxiety and social dysfunction at multiple points over the years.

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

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Their findings were echoed in research from King’s College London that found reported mental health problems among university students had almost tripled between 2016-17 and 2022-23, rising from 6% to 16%, and were especially prevalent among female and non-binary students.

A significant part of this increase occurred in the last 12 months, coinciding with the cost of living crisis.

The research found that among students considering dropping out of university, the proportion citing financial distress rose from 3.5% to 8% between 2022 and 2023.

The research also found a small gradual increase in the rate of mental health difficulties as studentsundertook more paid work during term time.

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