Higher eduction, lower mental health

Dr John Mahoney

The prevalence of depression in higher education students is 5 times that of the global population (the worldwide estimate is 5% [1] and higher education is 25% [2]).During the COVID pandemic, depression rates among higher education students jumped to 34% [3].But it’s not just depression rates that are high in higher education student populations. The prevalence of anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances, and suicide-related outcomes are also higher when compared to other groups, including age-equivalent peers [1,2,3].These rates are concerning because mental illnesses are associated with lower quality of life scores, perceptions of social connection, and measures of physical health, and also academic performance.


Initiatives that target improving student mental health in higher education might not just reduce symptoms (which might be reason enough to offer them), they might also remove barriers to learning and enhance academic achievement.


There are several high-quality research articles that have explored the effectiveness of mental health interventions for higher education students. One consistent finding is that targeted intervention – so interventions for students at-risk of or with a mental illness – are particularly effectives[4,6,7,8]. Yes, universal interventions – so interventions for all students – are effective too, but not to the same extent [4,5,6,8]. This makes sense as those who are at-risk of or with a mental illness likely have the most opportunity to benefit from mental health interventions. There are some other interesting findings too.


Cognitive-behavioural interventions, mindfulness interventions, exercise, art-based interventions, and peer support programs have all been shown to be effective, but psycho-education alone is not effective [4].Interesting, those interventions that are less ‘psychology-focuses’ (exercise ,art-based interventions, peer support) are the most effective [4].These interventions might also be easier for universities to implement as 1) they can be delivered by professionals with varying backgrounds, 2) they can be marketed in creative ways that avoid the stigma of them being viewed as mental health interventions, and 3) they can be delivered at scale [6].


Speaking of interventions that can be delivered at scale, mental health interventions for higher education students that are delivered using technology, including fully online interventions, have shown great promise [5].The interventions might include some asynchronous resources (e.g., online training), but also synchronous opportunities (e.g., mentoring). This means that students don’t have to seek live, face-to-face support and, instead, can seek support when they want, how they want, and anonymously. This flexibility and anonymity might address some of the common barriers to accessing mental health interventions, particularly in higher education settings.


As a final word, while providing mental health interventions are important, it might also be valuable to provide higher education students with other kinds of support. Mental health interventions are reactive, addressing concerns after they’ve arisen. Offering proactive interventions –interventions that try to buffer against mental illnesses in the first place –might also be worthwhile for universities to pursue. Resilience programs are one example of how universities might be proactive in supporting the mental health of their students. There’s high-quality evidence that suggests that resilience interventions can enhance students’ abilities to cope with adversity, especially when they focus on developing social skills [9].