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New Warwick study finds financial and sleeping difficulties are key indicators of mental health risk in university students

A new study led by psychologists from the University of Warwick has found that financial worries and sleep difficulties are consistently associated with poor mental health in students.

The study, published in the journal BJPsychOpen, aimed to examine changes to poor mental health during the pandemic with a sample size of 895 university students and 547 non-students. Funded by the University of Warwick’s Pro-Vice Chancellor Covid Research Programme Award, the researchers hope that the findings can help aid universities to better inform student support services in identifying and addressing student mental health and wellbeing concerns. 

The study also found that there was no significant difference in mental health risks between students and non-students of the similar groups. Whilst symptoms remained similar between the two, the study did find that non-students appeared to be at a slightly higher risk of substance misuse. 

Further analysis of data collected towards the end of the first UK lockdown also found that several other consistent factors linked to higher levels of poor mental health included age, previous mental health conditions, and carer status. 

While the study found that increased financial difficulties and difficulty sleeping would “consistently predict poorer mental health”, researchers noted that there “was a reduction in mental health symptoms over time, with the percentage of students reporting symptoms of anxiety reduced from 72.1% to 59.3% over six months, and for depression it was reduced from 69.8% to 61.4%”. The researchers suggested that this reduction could in part be explained by students adapting to some symptoms as the pandemic evolved. 

 

While this research highlights the current pressures facing students’ wellbeing and mental health, it also highlights the need for continued support to mental health services in and outside university settings

–Dr Elaine Lockhart

Lead author Professor Nicole Tang, from Warwick University’s Department of Psychology, said: “There is a wealth of information generated by this study that universities can utilise to inform policies, prevention and intervention strategies.”

“Whilst there are markers of mental health issues that we cannot change, for example, age, a history of mental health conditions, and being a carer, we can use them to identify individuals at risk and provide enhanced support.

“Some of the indicators of future mental health issues are things that we can act on, for example, a worsened financial situation, reduced physical activity and increased sleep difficulties. Within the university system, there are established bursary programmes and infrastructure for promoting sports and activities. There are also proven-effective treatments on acute and chronic insomnia that can be applied to help students better regulate their sleep, in the midst of overwhelming stress and a loss of normal routine.

“What is also interesting is that the study shows mental health is a multidimensional concept, and can be seen as a profile of different symptoms, which appear to respond to the pandemic experience differently.”

Dr Hannah Friend, who has recently stepped down from the role of Director of Wellbeing and Safeguarding at the University of Warwick, said: “Research is a critical component of Warwick’s Wellbeing Strategy. This study reinforces the importance of utilising our research expertise to better inform what we do, and specifically to further define our priorities and objectives on Prevention and Early Intervention. I’m delighted that we are successfully joining up research and practice in a whole organisation approach to wellbeing.”

Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said: “While this research highlights the current pressures facing students’ wellbeing and mental health, it also highlights the need for continued support to mental health services in and outside university settings. However, those who develop more acute mental health problems must be able to access specialist services for diagnosis and evidence-based treatment.  With life returning to some degree of normality, students still face the worry of the pandemic and its economic consequences.”

For anyone affected by issues raised in this article, Warwick Wellbeing Services are available through the Wellbeing Portal or over the phone using the following number: 024 7657 5570. Charities such as MIND have additional information, guidance and support available.

 

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