The study of students in Northern Ireland found that rates of mental ill-health varied according to the subject students were taking
"It has been found that students who study humanities, social work and counselling were more likely to report childhood adversities. These factors may not only attract individuals towards specific degrees but also predispose them to poorer mental wellbeing." Study authors
Students’ risk of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse could be linked to the subject they study, according to research carried out in Northern Ireland.
The study, which was carried out by academics at Ulster University (UU), Atlantic Technological University (ATU) in Letterkenny and the Western Health and Social Care Trust, collected data from 1,829 first-year undergraduate students at UU and ATU as part of the Student Psychological Intervention Trial (SPIT).
The students completed diagnostic questionnaires about mental health problems including mood, panic disorders, bipolar disorder as well as conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and substance-related issues. A separate questionnaire was used to ask students about suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
Overall, the researchers write, the study found “high prevalence rates of suicidal behaviour and a range of mental health and substance abuse problems”, which they say is “of great concern.” The researchers found that psychology students reported elevated rates of panic disorder and social anxiety, while law students had the highest rates of alcohol misuse and business students reported the highest rate of drug abuse. Computing students reported higher-than-average rates of depression and suicidal behaviour.
Art students reported the highest rates of depression and ADHD, while engineering students reported low rates of mental health problems. As engineering is a male-dominated subject, however, the researchers speculate that the low rates “may be related to a reluctance of males to disclose mental health issues.”
Nursing students were the least likely to report psychological problems.
The study also found “significant differences between courses in reported rates for depression, panic disorder, bi-polar disorder, social anxiety, possible ADHD and suicidal ideation”. They add, however, that “no significant differences were found between courses for alcohol misuse, drug abuse or suicide attempts or self-harm.”
The findings suggest that many students begin university or college with mental health problems. It seems likely that specific degree courses may attract students who are more susceptible to particular mental health problems, the paper says: “For example, it has been found that students who study humanities, social work and counselling were more likely to report childhood adversities. These factors may not only attract individuals towards specific degrees but also predispose them to poorer mental wellbeing.”
The authors argue that preventative measures offered by universities and colleges should be “tailored” for students taking different courses. “This may be even more important, since the pandemic, when students were working remotely, with some cohorts missing out on practical classes, lab work and placements, with many struggling since the return to face-to face learning,” the paper says.
This study into student mental health has produced some striking findings. As the authors say, rates of mental ill-health, in particular suicidal ideation and substance abuse, are concerningly high amongst undergraduate students. The variation in rates of mental ill-health amongst students of different subjects is also interesting because, in many cases, the problems appear to have started before the student began the course. This suggests that students with mental health problems are likely to be drawn to certain subjects rather than that the stress of the subject is causing the problem. The findings provide an opportunity for universities to target mental health support more effectively to particular groups of students.