Going to higher education would be synonymous with anxiety, even depression, suggest British researchers, regardless of the social level of the people concerned. An observation which could be taken into account in the implementation of new strategies intended to preserve the younger generations, whose mental health has particularly deteriorated in recent years.
Hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the mental health of populations is a concern on a global scale. In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) has “Urged policymakers and mental health advocates to step up their commitment and action to change attitudes, measures and approaches towards mental health, its determinants and care“. This is all the more the case for younger generations hit hard by the health crisis. But the latter is not the only cause of the increase in levels of anxiety and depression observed in recent years, as revealed by a new study carried out by researchers at University College London (UCL).
Increased risk of anxiety and depression
“In recent years in the UK we have seen an increase in mental health problems among young people. So more emphasis has been placed on how to support students“, explains Dr Gemma Lewis from the UCL Department of Psychiatry, in a press release. And adds: “The first two years of higher education are a crucial period for development. If we can 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 their academic achievement and long-term success.“.
To carry out their work, the researchers used data from two longitudinal studies on young people in England: the first carried out among 4,832 participants born in 1989-1990, and therefore aged 18 to 19 in 2007-2009, and a second among 6,128 participants born in 1998-1999, and therefore aged 18 to 19 in 2016-1018. The observation periods correspond to the arrival – or not – of young people at university or any other higher education establishment, and take place, as we see, before the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also specified that a little more than half of the panel followed higher education, and that all of the participants responded to various surveys on their mental health at different stages of this research.
Published in The Lancet Public Health, this work identified “a slightly increased risk of depression and anxiety” in participants who had completed higher education, compared to those who did not attend this type of establishment. . The scientists also specify that this risk was maintained after adjusting for certain factors, such as socio-economic status, parental education, or alcohol consumption. “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. These results are therefore particularly worrying“, says Dr. Tayla McCloud, co-author of the study.
Less anxiety after graduation
An important detail is highlighted by the researchers, although little developed: the difference in levels of anxiety and depression between students and non-students tends to disappear over the years. The study indicates that it had even completely disappeared by the age of 25. A point to take into account to understand the factors linked to this increase in anxiety, but also to avoid discouraging younger generations from pursuing higher education. Especially since the researchers at this stage provide no explanation for this phenomenon, although they suggest probable avenues.
“Based on our results, we cannot say why students might be at greater risk for depression and anxiety than their peers, but it might be related to academic or financial pressure. This increased risk among students has not been observed in previous studies. Therefore, while this association has only recently emerged, it may be linked to increased financial pressures and concerns about achieving high outcomes within a broader economic and social context“, submits Dr. Tayla McCloud. And concludes: “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“.
Financial pressure involved?
These findings echo other data, recently revealed by King’s College London, showing a significant rise in mental health problems among students. In detail, 6% of undergraduate students at UK universities mentioned such problems in 2016-2017, compared to 16% for the 2022-2023 academic year. “A significant portion of this increase occurred over the past 12 months, a period during which the cost of living crisis intensified“, we can read in the report. A finding confirmed by the fact that 8% of students planning to abandon their course cite financial difficulties as the main cause in 2023, compared to 3.5% in 2022.
In Europe, Inserm looked into the subject but in an epidemic context, between March 2020 and January 2021, also highlighting higher levels of stress among students facing the health crisis. “The analyzes show that over the entire period considered, students are more affected than non-students by mental health problems. 36.6% reported depressive symptoms (compared to 20.1% of non-students) and 27.5% reported anxiety symptoms (compared to 16.9%). Additionally, 12.7% of students reported suicidal thoughts (compared to 7.9% of non-students)“, we can read in a press release.