The study contradicts earlier research showing that university students have better mental health than non-students
“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.” Dr Gemma Lewis, associate professor, University College London
University students are more at risk of depression and anxiety than young people who go straight into work, according to a new study from University College London (UCL).
The paper, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in Lancet Public Health, says that by the age of 25, the difference in mental health had disappeared between graduates and non-graduates. The researchers analysed data from the Longitudinal Studies of Young People in England, which includes 4,832 young people born in 1989-90, who were aged 18-19 in 2007-9, and 6,128 participants born in 1998-99, aged 18-19 in 2016-18. In both studies, just over half attended higher education.
Participants completed surveys about their mental health to investigate symptoms of depression, anxiety and social dysfunction at multiple points over the years.
The researchers found a small difference in symptoms of depression and anxiety at age 18-19 between students and non-students that remained even when they controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status, parents’ education and alcohol use.
The authors’ analysis suggests that if the potential mental health risks of attending higher education were eliminated, the incidence of depression and anxiety could be reduced by 6% among people aged 18-19.
The research contradicts the findings of earlier studies, which have shown that university students tend to have better mental health than their non-student counterparts. Dr Tayla McCloud, a researcher in the psychiatry department at University College London (UCL) and co-author of the study, said the new findings might be the result of “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context”.
McCloud said she would normally expect university students to have better mental health as they tend to be from more privileged backgrounds, making the results “particularly concerning.” She said more research was needed to identify the risks facing students.
The study’s lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis, associate professor at UCL’s school of psychiatry, said poorer mental health at university could have repercussions in later life: “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.”
Research from the Policy Institute at King’s College London has also found that reported mental health problems among university students rose from 6% to 16% between 2016-17 and 2022-23. A significant part of this increase occurred in the last 12 months.
The King’s researchers analysed a dataset of 82,682 full-time UK undergraduates over seven years. Among students considering dropping out of university, the researchers found, the proportion citing financial distress rose from 3.5% to 8% between 2022 and 2023.
Female students (12%) are more than twice as likely as male students (5%) to say they have been affected by poor mental health, the data shows.
The general upward trend in mental health problems predates both the rise in inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic, indicating that other factors are involved, the researchers said.
Undergraduates who attended state schools (15%) have on average worse mental health than their peers who attended private school (11%), the researchers found. Students whose money comes from a maintenance loan, grant or paid work are more likely to have mental health difficulties than those on scholarships or with family support.
Michael Sanders, professor of public policy at the Policy Institute and author of the study, said: “It’s clear the experiences of mental ill-health among students are deeply unequal, and exist along much the same lines as in society at large, with those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds or who often face discrimination being most likely in general to report struggles with their mental health.”
Traditionally, university students have led a more comfortable existence than their non-student peers. They tended to come from more privileged backgrounds, and have arguably led a more carefree existence. But the profile of the average student has changed, with many more coming from poorer backgrounds. The introduction of university tuition fees and, more recently, the rise in inflation, have both created financial pressures not experienced by previous generations of undergraduates. More recently, the Covid pandemic has created additional stress and anxiety for many students. Universities need to be alert to the mental health impact of financial worries on students and to offer appropriate support.