In a recent study published in the Lancet Public Health and commissioned by the Department for Education, it has been found that university students are more susceptible to depression and anxiety compared to their peers who choose to enter the workforce immediately after high school. This research challenges the previously held assumption that students generally enjoy better mental health than non-students.
Dr. Tayla McCloud, the first author of the study and a researcher in the University College London (UCL)’s psychiatry department, suggested that the link between university enrollment and poor mental health might be due to “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context.”
It’s noteworthy that while university students often come from more privileged backgrounds, their mental health outcomes are still concerning and require further investigation.
Financial Challenges Impacting University Students
The academic year 2023 has presented university students with unprecedented financial challenges. They are not only grappling with rising costs due to inflation but also facing an average rent increase of 8%, which significantly 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 of the Study
The study analyzed 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 highlights the critical issue of mental health among university students. It emphasizes the urgent need for targeted interventions and support to ensure the well-being and success of young adults during their higher education journey. Addressing financial pressures and providing mental health resources are essential steps in safeguarding the mental health of our future workforce.