College students may be at a greater risk of experiencing depression and anxiety compared to young people who are not in higher education, according to a new study published in The Lancet Public Health.
Researchers from University College London analyzed data from two studies.
The first study looked at 4,832 young people who were 18 and 19 years old between 2007 and 2009.
The second analyzed 6,128 young people who were 18 and 19 years old between 2016 and 2018.
Just over half of the participants were attending college.
Based on multiple surveys the young people completed about their mental health, there was a small, elevated risk for depression and anxiety among the students compared to the non-students. There was an approximate 6% difference in risk between the two groups.
By age 25, after the students had graduated, there was no longer a gap in depression rates, the study found.
“In recent years in the U.K., we have seen an increase in mental health problems among young people, so there has been an increased focus on how to support students,” said lead author Dr. Gemma Lewis from UCL Psychiatry in a press release from the university.
“The first couple of years of higher education are a crucial time for development,” she added.
“So if we could 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 for their educational achievement and longer-term success.”
Dr. Tayla McCloud, the first author of the study from UCL Psychiatry, said the researchers can’t be certain why students might be more at risk of depression and anxiety than their peers, but suggested some theories.
“This increased risk among students has not been found in studies in the past, so if the association has only recently emerged, it may be related to increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context,” she said in the release.
The findings were surprising, McCloud noted.
“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, so these results are particularly concerning,” she said.
“More research is needed to clarify the mental health risks facing students.”
Ljubica Ciric, PsyD, vice president of child and family mental health at the Community Partners of South Florida, was not involved in the study but offered her input on the findings.
“During this particular age, friendships are of a high importance for most children,” she told Fox News Digital.
“Being removed from major support systems — such as high school, the city you lived in and especially parents — increases feelings of loneliness and fear, which are directly correlated with symptoms of anxiety,” Ciric went on.
There is also the added academic and economic pressure, along with the uncertainty of finding a job once school is completed, she said.
There is also a differentiation between diagnosis and symptoms of depression and anxiety, Ciric pointed out.
“This study assessed for only symptoms and a diagnosis was not present.”
“Therefore, it could possibly be more appropriate to call these adjustment difficulties, similar to any other individual struggling emotionally with adjusting to new situations in their lives.”
When assessing a young person’s mental health, Ciric advised being mindful of any extreme changes in behavior — “changes in sleep patterns, interest in food, social interests, and levels and frequency of crying or aggression.”
Feelings of increased fear, thoughts that are persistent and create additional feelings of fear, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are also red flags.
Additional warning signs include difficulty completing tasks, trouble concentrating or remembering, lack of energy, increased irritability or feeling overwhelmed all the time, added Dr. Beth Oller, a Kansas-based psychologist who regularly helps patients identify and manage mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Oller was also not involved in the study.
This study was in England, Oller pointed out — “so while some associations can be made, it isn’t exactly apples to apples.”
She told Fox News Digital, “There are differences in the higher education systems country to country.”
“The studies also began in 2004 and 2013, so there have been a lot of world events — COVID especially — that may change results, particularly baseline anxiety and depression that may be higher in students who have lived through a pandemic.”
The study was also small, as were the differences between the two groups, Oller pointed out.
“I am not sure that much can be drawn from the study aside from what I would counsel any of my patients: to monitor closely for any signs of depression or anxiety and talk to your family physician if you feel like it is a problem for you,” she said.
“We also have to ask whether people who seek higher education are truly at a higher risk, or possibly just more likely to report or seek treatment as it may be more available.”
Building resilience is important at this age, Ciric said.
Having a mentor on campus to help students feel safe and welcomed could help alleviate depressive symptoms, she advised.
Other ideas include preparing students emotionally — not just academically — for what to expect.
Increasing financial support and creating employment opportunities on campus can also help ease anxiety, Ciric suggested.
Students can also join available activities and groups to increase their connections and relationships with peers.
As Oller noted, most campuses have programs aimed at student wellness that can help.
“I would recommend that any students experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression not only reach out to their family physician, but also see what resources are available at their own college or university,” she told Fox News Digital.
“Encouraging discussion and continuing public health education regarding mental health, reducing stigma and normalizing treatment can all help remove barriers to people getting the help that they need.”
Fox News Digital reached out to the study authors for additional comment.