1 in 3 college freshmen experience moderate to severe anxiety and depression

KINGSTON, Ontario — A third of first year students in college experience anxiety and depression, a new study reveals. Researchers from the United Kingdom and Canada add students taking drugs or medication without a prescription after starting college face greater odds of suffering from mental health problems by the end of the year.

Going to university can be a difficult period in life when many young adults develop mental illnesses, most commonly “internalizing disorders,” including anxiety and depression. Study authors found what factors could help get students who are struggling with mental health issues back on their feet.

“Moderate to severe levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are common among students at entry to university and persist over the first year,” researchers say in a media release. “University connectedness may mitigate the risk of persistent or emergent symptoms, whereas drug use appears to increase these risks.”

Major exams raise the risk of mental health issues

The team analyzed data from 5,245 first-year students who enrolled at a public university in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 2018. Students completed surveys about their mental health in September, two weeks after starting their courses, and in March, two weeks before starting their college exams.

The participants also provided additional information on other “influential” factors like whether the student had previously suffered sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. The team used the College Student Wellbeing scale to measure students’ sense of belonging, both within the university campus and with their peers.

Researchers also examined how much alcohol the students drank and whether they took sleeping pills or stimulants without a doctor’s prescription or used drugs such as cannabis, painkillers, or psychedelics.

At the start of the academic year, 32 percent of students reported symptoms of anxiety and 27 percent reported suffering from depression. This increased to 37 percent and 33 percent respectively by the time exams came around in March.

More connections on campus help with mental health

Students with a history of mental health disorders were four times less likely to recover from anxiety and depression throughout the year. However, those who felt connected to university life and their peers had greater odds of recovering, the study finds.

For every one-point increase on the College Student Wellbeing scale, a student’s chances of recovery increased by 18 percent for depression and 14 percent for anxiety. Those who reported feeling more connected to their university and friends at the start of their course were also less likely to develop mental health problems.

Taking drugs, on the other hand, seriously increased the odds of developing anxiety and depression, with the odds rising by 16 percent for each additional point on the drug score — which ranges from 0 to 24.

Researchers concludes that many interrelated factors influence the development and management of mental health problems, whether they be biological, psychological, or social factors.

They add that the findings have “important implications” for colleges worldwide and how they handle their mental health policies, programs, and practices on campus. Study authors believe the availability of clubs, societies, and sporting activities play a key role in promoting student mental health and well-being.

The study is published in the journal BMJ Open.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.