Financial and sleeping difficulties are key mental health risk indicators in university students

A new study of student wellbeing during the pandemic by the University of Warwick has identified worsened financial situation and sleep difficulties as key indicators of individuals at higher risk of developing mental health issues.

The findings will be valuable to higher education institutions in identifying those students at higher risk of developing mental health issues, and will help to inform policies and interventions aimed at preventing these issues.

The study, published today (26 July) in the journal BJPsychOpen, is based on a survey of 895 university students and 547 young adults who were not in higher education taken between July and September 2020, with 201 of those university students also followed-up after 6 months. The research was funded by the University of Warwick’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) COVID Research Programme Award and supported by the Warwick Health 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 lockdown in the UK: age, previous mental health conditions, carer status, worse-off financial status and increased sleep irregularity and difficulty.

When they compared the responses of university students to those from non-students of a similar age, there were no significant differences between the two groups in mental health symptoms, except for a higher substance misuse risk found in non-students.

When recontacting a subset of students who responded between January — March 2021, the researchers found that increased financial difficulties and difficulty sleeping would consistently predict 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 reduced from 72.1% to 59.3% over six months, and for depression it was reduced from 69.8% to 61.4%. The researchers suggest that this could be due to students adapting to some symptoms as the pandemic evolved, though some symptoms were more ingrained.

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