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THL study: "Concerning" increase in depression, anxiety among higher education students

One in three students at universities and universities of applied sciences reported suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression, with the rate even higher among women.

File photo of students sitting in the library at the University of Tampere. Image: Antti Eintola / Yle

A research study into the health and well-being of higher education students in Finland has found that one in three suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

This is a proportionally higher rate of mental health symptoms and psychological distress than the adult population as a whole, according to the research.

More than 6,000 students responded to the latest Finnish Student Health and Wellbeing Survey (KOTT) — carried out in a cooperative project by public health authority THL and social insurance institute Kela every four years — during February and March this year.

The rate of anxiety and depression among female students was even higher, with 40 percent of women studying at universities and universities of applied sciences reporting symptoms.

The study further found that female students were three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than their male counterparts.

THL's Development Manager Suvi Parikka explained that questions on mental health from other large-scale population surveys were added to the latest KOTT study, which meant that students could be compared to other adults.

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Suvi Parikka, Development Manager at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

"The workload of young adults has also been highlighted by other studies, which means that it is not just a problem for students. However, students have said that during the coronavirus era, the workload required for their studies has increased," Parikka said, but added that the mental strain and symptoms of anxiety and depression had been on the increase even before the pandemic.

The effects of the Covid pandemic may have then exacerbated these issues, she said.

Remote learning causing isolation, loneliness

The increased workload may be due to challenges arising from remote learning, Parika added.

The survey was conducted during the third wave of the corona epidemic, in the spring of 2021, when many students were largely confined to their homes. This meant that much of the studying was done alone and the opportunities to maintain social networks were significantly limited.

Social activities that are usually associated with student life — such as events, parties, hobbies — were prohibited or restricted at the time.

"In addition, those who started their studies in 2020 may not have developed their study routines, which makes the situation even more difficult," Parikka said.

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Antti Halava, who studies engineering and mathematics at Aalto University in Helsinki, told Yle that loneliness is a problem within the higher education environment. "It's important to keep a balance between school and the rest of your life," he said. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

She added that she hopes second year students will have been better integrated into the university community during the current academic year.

However, it is unlikely that the situation will dramatically change any time soon and — although students have at least partly returned to campuses during the autumn term — the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS) reported in November that demand among university students for mental health services this autumn has been higher than total annual levels in the past.

This gives an indication that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on health and well-being will not be resolved in the very short term, Parikka added. She therefore called for different and new means of supporting students to be considered so that students are not left alone while queuing for congested services.

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Leena Nieminen, a first year student of chemical engineering at Aalto University, told Yle she could understand the results of THL's research. "We have mostly been remote, and it is a really hard start to studying," she said. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

Support for students needed

Parikka further called for an assessment of the need for support to be provided to students, so that the risk of a prolonged and severe mental disorder does not materialise. However, she added, the most important thing would be to address the root causes.

"If the problems are related to remote learning, then support from school staff is needed," she said.

In addition to professional help, students also have the opportunity to influence their own health and well-being.

The survey found that anxiety and depression were less common among students who exercised, for example, while many respondents reported that browsing their phones affected their sleep.

"A good night's sleep and a healthy diet helps students' well-being and recovery, in addition to maintaining social circles," Parikka noted.

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Matti Kaurala is in the final stages of studying economics and finance at Aalto University. "Sports and the other social activities have really helped with the study side," he said. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

However, there is a problem with the above suggestion: for a person who is deeply depressed, it is pointless to suggest going for a jog or correcting their sleep rhythm, when waking up alone can be such a crushing experience.

"Here again we come to the need for an assessment of the requirement for care. Those who need help must get it," Parikka said.

However, it is clear that student health care and mental health services alone will not solve the mental health problems of young adults. The situation must also be addressed through cross-sectoral cooperation, Parikka said, and higher education institutes should actively seek out struggling students within the school safety net.

"Universities need to highlight and strengthen community spirit, peer support and basic study guidance," Parikka suggested.

However, the means by which this will happen is not yet clear.