Ignorance Really Is Bliss: Study Finds People Who Go to University Are More Depressed

An image showing a sad person at university to illustrate an article on mental health and depression at university.

Some (highly misinformed people) say that school is the best days of your life, but a new study from the UK is putting another nail in the coffin of that myth, with evidence that people who go to university are more depressed than those who don’t.

Researchers at University College London have found higher levels of depression and anxiety among people who are currently in higher education versus those who aren’t.

The authors did find, however, that by the age of 25, the difference had disappeared between graduates and non-graduates — meaning that it’s those currently undertaking higher education who are most at risk of mental health issues.

Lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis, has said the findings could be used to help improve the mental health of young people, something that the UK, as well as Australia, is struggling with.

“The first couple of years of higher education are a crucial time for development, so if we could improve the mental health of young people during this time it could have long-term benefits for their health and wellbeing, as well as for their educational achievement and longer-term success,” Lewis said.

The researchers looked at the data of more than 10,000 people born between 1989-90 who were aged 18-19 in the years 2007-9, just over half of whom went on to attend higher education. During their time in higher education, rates of anxiety and depression increased by about 6% compared to those who didn’t go. This association persisted after adjusting for things like socioeconomic status, parents’ education, and alcohol use.

First author, Dr Tayla McCloud, has said that an association between university and mental health issues have not been identified before. While the specific cause has yet to be identified, McCloud suggests academic or financial pressure may be the culprit.

“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.

The mental health of young people is a major concern amongst parents, educational institutions, and healthcare experts. Levels of depression and anxiety in people under the age of 25 are thought to be at record levels according to multiple national surveys. Experts say declining mental health is a global crisis and the political will to implement solutions needs to be found rapidly.

“Improving our understanding of modifiable risk factors for depression and anxiety is a global health priority, and it is clear that supporting the mental health of our young people is vitally important,” McCloud said.

Related: The Cost of Living Crisis Is Deepening Our Mental Health Crisis

Related: What Labor’s First Budget Means for Mental Health

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