Depression: Rates among students increased during Covid-19, study suggests

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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The study also suggests that many students begin university or college with pre-existing mental health problems

Rates of depression among students have increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, new research suggests.

That is a key finding from a cross-border study of students from Ulster University (UU) and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LIT).

"In particular, the large increase in students with depression is a concern," its authors said.

The study involved more than 1,800 students who started courses in September 2019.

What is unusual about the research is that experts were already collecting information about students' mental health before the pandemic and were then able to compare that with information collected during it.

The study also suggests that many students begin university or college with pre-existing mental health problems.

'Mass disruption'

It was carried out by researchers and academics from UU, LIT and the Western Health and Social Care Trust.

"The pandemic caused mass disruption to university campuses, with students seeing a shift to remote learning, changes in assessment and exam procedures, and cancellation of placements," the paper said.

"Social distancing measures and the closure of social venues also significantly reduced opportunities for socialisation."

The study compared rates of depression and anxiety symptoms among students at UU and LIT prior to the pandemic in autumn 2019 and during the pandemic in autumn 2020.

More than 1,800 first-year students completed detailed diagnostic surveys for symptoms of anxiety and depression in September 2019.

Then 884 of those students completed a further diagnostic questionnaire in September 2020 when they entered the second year of their course.

The study found that more than one in five students in LIT had symptoms of depression in 2019.

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The report's authors want more support for students' mental health

However, there was a significant increase in the number of students at UU identified with symptoms of depression in 2020 compared to 2019.

In 2019, 86 (13%) of the study's UU students exhibited symptoms of depression.

In 2020, that rose to 158 students - just under a quarter of those at UU who took part.

The study also asked students to respond to questions on what caused them stress during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Increased social isolation was one of the main stressors and they were more likely to be worried about loved ones getting infected with Covid-19, than getting it themselves," the authors said.

"Further analyses revealed that students with mental health problems were more likely to say that they experienced either very severe or severe stress.

"This increase in symptoms of depression may be related to increased social isolation, feelings of helplessness and a lack of hope for the future."

The authors said this may also be related to academic pressures and uncertainty during this time.

"Furthermore, an increase in alcohol consumption during this time may have had a negative impact," they added.

'Alarming' number trigger high-risk alert

The study found that rates of anxiety among students had decreased during the pandemic, particularly on UU campuses.

But "it should be noted that approximately a fifth of students had symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder", the study added.

Also, while no significant difference was found in the rates of students identifying as a suicide risk, the authors said that "the number of students who triggered the high-risk alert was alarming".

They said the study "revealed that symptoms of depression increased significantly, while anxiety symptoms decreased, and suicide risk remained high" among the students who took part.

"The findings indicate that students are a vulnerable group, in need of support during these difficult times."

They called for more support and help for students experiencing mental health problems.

A third part of the study is being conducted among students at present, 20 months into the pandemic.

The research paper called "Depression, Anxiety and Suicidal Behaviour Among College Students: Comparisons Pre-Covid-19 and During the Pandemic" has just been accepted for publication in the journal Psychiatry Research Communications.

Eleven authors were responsible for the study, including Dr Margaret McLafferty, Dr Elaine Murray, Caoimhe Ward, Allis Stevenson, Prof Colum Walsh, Dr Elaine Murray, Prof Tony Bjourson and Prof Siobhan O'Neill from UU, Natasha Brown and Dr Louise McBride from LIT and Dr John Brady from the Western Health and Social Care Trust.

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