Financial and sleep difficulties are key indicators of mental health risk among university students
A new study on student wellbeing during the pandemic by the University of Warwick has identified worsening financial circumstances and sleep difficulties as key indicators of who is most at risk of developing mental health problems .
The results will be useful for higher education institutions to identify students most at risk of developing mental health problems and help inform policies and interventions aimed at preventing these problems.
The study, published today (July 26) in the journal BJPsychOpen, is based on a survey conducted between July and September 2020 among 895 university students and 547 young adults not in higher education, of which 201 university students were also followed up after 6 months. The research was funded by the University of Warwick Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s (Research) COVID Research Program Award and supported by Warwick Health’s Global Research Priorities.
Analysis of their responses showed several consistent factors linked to high levels of poor mental health at the end of the first UK lockdown: age, previous mental health issues, carer status, financial situation the most degraded and the increase in the irregularity and difficulty of sleep.
When they compared the responses of university students with those of non-students of the same age, there were no significant differences between the two groups with regard to mental health symptoms, except for one higher risk of substance abuse among non-students.
By recontacting a subset of college students who responded between January and March 2021, the researchers found that increased financial hardship and difficulty sleeping consistently predicted poorer mental health. They also found that there was a reduction in mental health symptoms over time, with the percentage of students reporting symptoms of anxiety falling from 72.1% to 59.3% over six months, and for depression, it went from 69.8% to 61.4%. The researchers suggest this could be because students are adapting to certain symptoms as the pandemic evolves, although some symptoms are more ingrained.
The demographic profile of study participants is comparable to the profile of the student population in the UK, suggesting that the results would be useful to universities across the country.
The intervention and prevention measures available for each group can be applied to both populations for greater generalizability.
Lead author Professor Nicole Tang, from the University’s Department of Psychology and co-lead of the mental health theme at GRP University Health, said: “There is a wealth of information generated by this study that universities can use to inform policy, prevention and intervention strategies Although there are markers of mental health problems that we cannot change, for example, age, a history of mental health problems and being a caregiver, we can use them to identify those at risk and provide enhanced support.
“Some of the indicators of future mental health problems are things we can act on, for example, worsened financial situation, reduced physical activity and increased sleep disturbances. Within the university system, there are scholarship programs and infrastructure for the promotion of sports and There are also proven treatments on acute and chronic insomnia that can be applied to help students better regulate their sleep, in the midst of overwhelming stress and loss of routine normal.
“What’s also interesting is that the study shows that mental health is a multidimensional concept and can be viewed as a profile of different symptoms, which seem to respond differently to the experience of the pandemic.”
Dr Hannah Friend, Director of Wellbeing and Safeguarding at the University of Warwick, said: “Research is an essential part of Warwick’s wellbeing strategy. This study reinforces the importance of using our research expertise to better inform what we do, and more specifically to more precisely define our priorities and objectives in prevention and early intervention. I am delighted that we have succeeded in joining research and practice in an approach overall well-being.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the School of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “While this research sheds light on the current pressures facing well-being and health mental health of students, it also highlights the need for continued support for mental health services within and outside of academic settings. However, those who develop more acute mental health problems need to be able to access specialist services for evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. With life returning to some degree of normalcy, students still face anxiety about the pandemic and its economic consequences.”