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A third of first-year uni students face depression and anxiety

As many as one in three first-year university students have or will develop moderate to severe anxiety and/or depression, according to new research.

The study published in BMJ Open found, at entry to university, 32 per cent of students reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, and 27 per cent reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms. By March of the first year, these rates increased to 37 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.

Additionally, an increase in drug use among students without mental illness was found to be a risk factor for developing symptoms.

But, the UK and Canadian researchers say, ‘university connectedness’ via socialising and getting involved in student clubs, societies, and sports may lower odds of developing significant symptoms and boost the recovery, if symptoms are present.

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

The findings could inform university mental health policies and well-being initiatives, the study says.

“For example, on-campus therapy could focus more on developing university connectedness alongside their current practices, and campus-wide campaigns throughout the year could highlight the risks of drug use and protective effects of engaging in social and recreational pursuits, with reference to these findings. In general, universities should aim to share findings such as these, so students are able to make well-informed lifestyle decisions.”

Study limitations

The study was observational so can only identify a relationship between things, not causation. It was also based in one Canadian university only, so results may be different at other universities.

3 ways you can support someone with anxiety or depression

  1. If a young person you know has symptoms of anxiety or depression, encourage them to see their GP, who can steer them towards the right services.
  2. Let them know you are there to listen and to support them. Listening means no judgment or interruption. Let them know you are trying to understand what they are experiencing, even if it differs from your own experience, by giving them your full attention and accurately paraphrasing what they’ve said back to them.
  3. Don’t try to solve their problems. Rather than telling them what they need to do to ‘fix’ their situation, let them know their feelings are valid.

For a list of mental health services and helplines visit Where to get help.

Article sources and references

Date modified: December 2 2021
First published: Dec 2021

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