A new study published open-access this month in Community Mental Health Journal finds that the increased financial difficulties facing college students lead to greater depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse over time. In the longitudinal study of students in the UK, financial problems predicted poorer mental health and poorer mental health then led to greater financial hardship, signaling the possibility of a vicious cycle occurring.
Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southampton who led the study, wrote:
“In students, financial variables appear to lead to poor mental health rather than mental health problems leading to a deteriorating financial situation. However, there appears to be a bi-directional relationship between financial difficulties and global mental health and alcohol dependence, with finances worsening mental health and vice versa suggesting a vicious cycle developing.”
There have been numerous accounts over the past year of an “epidemic of anguish on college campuses,” and many have raised the alarm that more and more students are experiencing the symptoms of depression and anxiety while on campus.
Research in the US has found that approximately 15.6% of university students meet the diagnostic criteria for a depressive or anxiety disorder, and it appears that this problem only grows over the typical four-year undergraduate experience. A 2004 study of students found that of those without any mental health issues as freshman, 9% developed the symptoms of clinical depression, and 20% met the criteria for anxiety, by the end of their second year.
Some have suggested that cultural changes are driving the increase and that “common life dilemmas have become mental disorders.” Others have pointed out, however, that things are actually getting more stressful for college students. For example, Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, which works on mental health issues on college campuses, explains in an interview with New York Magazine:
“The world feels like a really anxious place for young people in many important ways. I think there’s incredible uncertainty about their economic and job prospects in five and ten and 20 years, and if you listen to the news, it’s hard not to be somewhat anxious.”
To investigate the effect of these economic and financial pressures on the mental health of college students, Richardson and his colleagues examined data that followed over 400 freshman undergraduate students throughout their first two years at university. The longitudinal design is of particular importance as it allows the researchers to look at what comes first, mental health issues or financial difficulties and stresses.
The data revealed that experiencing greater financial stress early on in college, like feeling that you are unable to pay your bills, is predictive of poorer global mental health and higher anxiety, depression, stress and alcohol dependence.
“The present study provides evidence in favor for financial stress predicting higher anxiety at 3–4 months and alcohol dependence at 6–8 months later after controlling for demographics and symptoms at baseline,” the researchers write.
They also found that students of the female gender had higher rates of anxiety but lower rates of alcohol misuse, and that having a disability signaled a greater risk for poorer global mental health, higher depression, anxiety, and stress.
Richardson, T., Elliott, P., Roberts, R. and Jansen, M., 2016. A Longitudinal Study of Financial Difficulties and Mental Health in a National Sample of British Undergraduate Students. Community Mental Health Journal, pp.1-9. (Full Text)