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A student's risk of mental ill-health, drug or alcohol abuse could be linked to the subject they study.

New research said many students begin university or college with pre-existing mental health problems.

The findings are from Ulster University (UU) and the Atlantic Technological University (ATU) in Letterkenny.

The report also suggested some students may be attracted to subjects "such as psychology or law, due to negative early life experiences".

It found psychology students reported elevated rates of panic disorder and social anxiety, while law students had the highest alcohol misuse rates.

Business students reported the highest rate of drug abuse, with nursing students the least likely to report psychological problems.

Previous research has suggested that male students are less likely than women to seek wellbeing or counselling help at university or college.

The newly published study was carried out by researchers and academics from UU, ATU and the Western Health and Social Care Trust.

Its findings are based on data collected from 1,829 first-year undergraduate students as part of the Student Psychological Intervention Trial (Spit) across four UU campuses in Northern Ireland and the Atlantic Technological University (ATU) in Letterkenny in County Donegal.

The students completed detailed diagnostic questionnaires about a range of mental health problems including mood, panic disorders, bipolar disorder as well as conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and substance-related issues.

Counselling and medication

A separate questionnaire was used to ask students about suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Participants in the study were also asked if they had ever received counselling, medication for "an emotional or substance use problem", whether they felt they needed help and why they might not have sought it.

The researchers then analysed the responses from students taking different subjects in different university faculties.

They found that there were "significant differences between courses in reported rates for depression, panic disorder, bi-polar disorder, social anxiety, possible ADHD and suicidal ideation".

The findings suggest that many students begin university or college with mental health problems, but some courses had more students with problems than others.

Specific degree courses may also attract those who are more susceptible to mental health problems.

"For example, it has been found that students who study humanities, social work and counselling were more likely to report childhood adversities," the paper said.

"These factors may not only attract individuals towards specific degrees but also predispose them to poorer mental wellbeing."

Two medicine students

Students studying life and sciences had the lowest rate of mental health and substance abuse issues

The researchers broke down the issues the student responses had highlighted by the courses they were taking.

For instance, students taking courses in life and health sciences - like medicine, physiotherapy or biomedical science - had "the lowest rates of mental health and substance problems," according to the study.

But "when individual courses were examined, distinct variations were uncovered".

"For example, psychology students reported elevated rates of panic disorder and social anxiety," the paper said.

"Furthermore, these students were most likely to say that they felt that they may have needed treatment which would suggest that while the psychology students had an awareness about their mental health issues, it did not encourage them to seek help."

Some psychology students told the researchers that they were worried that if they sought help it could affect their future career.

By contrast, students studying computing were least likely to worry that seeking help would harm their career.

Drugs and alcohol

Nursing students were least likely to report psychological problems, but mental health nursing students reported more problems than those studying general nursing.

"Business students reported the highest rate of drug abuse, while law students reported the highest alcohol misuse rates," the research suggested.

"Prior studies have suggested that such findings are connected to stressors related to the course."

Art students reported the highest rates of depression and ADHD, while engineering students reported low rates of mental health problems.

But as engineering was a male-dominated subject the researchers asked if those low rates "may be related to a reluctance of males to disclose mental health issues".

Student painting

The research found that art students reported the highest rates of depression and ADHD

The study authors said that pointed to the need for help and preventative measures offered by universities and colleges to be "tailored" for students taking different courses.

"This may be even more important, since the pandemic, when students were working remotely, with some cohorts missing out on practical classes, lab work and placements, with many struggling since the return to face-to face learning," the research paper said.

The researchers also suggested that mentoring schemes or other wellbeing initiatives could help new students adjust to university life.

The paper called: "Variations in psychological disorders, suicidality, and help-seeking behaviour among college students from different academic disciplines" has been published in the Plos One scientific online journal.

The study was funded by the Cross-border Healthcare Intervention Trials in Ireland Network.


From BBC




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