By John Salak –
Sometimes being smart—or at least being involved in higher education—has its drawbacks. Researchers at Britain’s University College London (UCL) found that young people in higher education in England face an increased risk of depression and anxiety compared to those who are not academics.
Fortunately, UCL reports that by age 25, the difference between graduates and non-graduates seems to disappear.
While the university’s work focused exclusively on students in Britain, it is possible, if not likely, that the findings reflect similar patterns among U.S. students in higher education. An earlier survey of approximately 90,000 students across 133 American campuses, in fact, found 44 percent of students said they were depressed; 37 percent were experiencing anxiety; and 15 percent were considering suicide—the highest rate in the 15-year history.
“In recent years in the U.K. we have seen an increase in mental health problems among young people, so there has been an increased focus on how to support students,” reported lead author Dr. Gemma Lewis. “Here we have found concerning evidence that students may have a higher risk of depression and anxiety than their peers of the same age who are not in higher education.”
The UCL results were based on data from the Longitudinal Studies of Young People in England that covered 10,000 young people in two groups, one born in 1989-90 and another in 1998-99. More than half of those in both groups attended higher education.
The young people connected to the studies had completed surveys about their general mental health. The answers then allowed the researchers to take a deep dive into their symptoms regarding depression, anxiety and social dysfunction at multiple time points over the years.
There were differences in depression and anxiety, albeit small, at ages 18-19 between students and non-students. This association persisted after adjustment for potentially confounding factors including, among others, socioeconomic status, parents’ education and alcohol use.
The UCL results suggest that if the potential mental health risks of attending higher education were eliminated, the incidence of depression and anxiety could potentially be reduced by 6 percent among people aged 18-19.
“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 well-being, as well as for their educational achievement and longer-term success,” Lewis explained.
The challenge for Lewis and others is trying to identify just why these students experience these emotional health issues.
“Based on our findings, we cannot say why students might be more at risk of depression and anxiety than their peers, but it could be related to academic or financial pressure,” noted Dr. Tayla McCloud, first author of the UCL’s report. “This increased risk among students has not been found in studies in the past, so if the association has only recently emerged, it may be related to increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context.”
The findings, admittedly, are somewhat ironic, considering that some might assume that university students should be better positioned to handle mental health issues. The related issues probably extend well past Britain’s borders.
“We would have expected higher education students to have better mental health than their non-student peers as they tend to be from more privileged backgrounds on average, so these results are particularly concerning. More research is needed to clarify the mental health risks facing students,” McCloud explained. “Improving our understanding of modifiable risk factors for depression and anxiety is a global health priority, and it is clear that supporting the mental health of our young people is vitally important.”