Why are university students so prone to mental illness?

Why are university students so prone to mental illness?

Image source: The Wireless

By Connor Foley

A 2016 national survey by Headspace showed in the past 12 months nearly a third of university students had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, over three-quarters felt anxious and more than half experienced severe panic.

While mental illness is usually more common in younger people, the percentage of Australian university students with mental health issues (67 per cent) compared to the general population (25 per cent) is extremely troubling.

More than 1.4 million students currently attend Australian universities; where university is known as a time for fun, independence and the transition to adulthood.

But it seems the stresses of academic demands, high study costs, sleepless nights and soaring unemployment rates are taking a psychological toll.

Here we take a look at some of these factors and how they might influence the mental health of university students:

 Financial stress

The academic demands of university are often challenging and stressful, but the financial impacts can be equally damaging to students.

Busy schedules often leave students little to no time for a job and the costs of university life continue to grow.

Tuition fees have significantly increased in recent years and according to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, an undergraduate degree now typically costs anywhere from $15,000 to $33,000.

Although HECS-HELP and other forms of government assistance are available, this massive debt is further burdened by the limited job prospects that often wait at the end of a degree.

Recent data by the Good Universities Guide revealed approximately 30 per cent of graduates left university without any job prospects.

The National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University also found that the number of recent graduates in full-time employment had dropped from 56 per cent to 41 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

Two-thirds of undergraduates have said they are worried about their financial situation, and students with financial stress are twice as likely to report having a mental illness.


Sleep research suggests that a teenager needs between eight to 10 hours of sleep every night, while most teenagers only get about 6.5–7.5 hours of sleep per night.

In Headspace’s national survey, over half reported having difficulty sleeping.

 Dr Moira Junge, from the Sleep Health Foundation, said poor sleep is harmful to mental health and particularly common for those who recently finished high school.

“The effects of poor sleep cause imbalances in our systems and whether it’s increased the risk for obesity or depression, accidents or diabetes, the effects are similar as functioning and optimal health have been compromised,” she said.

 “It’s a vulnerable age as mum and dad aren’t really able to monitor or influence sleep length or quality, and if a late bed time still coincides with early starts to the day, it causes sleep deprivation with all its known associated risks.

“It’s a good idea for us to be mindful of this age group and educate them about the risks in terms of accidents, mental health conditions and just health in general.”

Seeking help

Students who have mental health issues are also less likely to seek professional help, despite most universities offering counselling services.

According to Headspace’s survey, only 27 per cent of students struggling with their mental health had actually accessed on-campus counselling services.

A similar study also found out of all students who didn’t access professional help, 39 per cent blamed high costs and 31 per cent blamed stigma as the major motivators. 

Dr Vijaya Manicavasagar, clinical psychologist from Black Dog Institute, said mental health can worsen if it fails to be addressed.

“Many mental health problems have an insidious onset whereby individuals gradually become distressed and disabled by those problems without necessarily reflecting on how badly they may be functioning,” she said.

“Sometimes, people feel that their problems are not important enough to seek help for or, alternatively, that they are so serious that no one would be able to help them anyway.”

Substance use

Alcohol use figures remain relatively unchanged among students, but research shows drug use in universities is increasing, which could have a major impact on mental health.

A 2013 study found 37 per cent of students used illicit drugs, with higher than national estimate rates of marijuana (36 per cent), ecstasy (20 per cent) and cocaine use (14 per cent).

A large number of students also reported using drugs for study purposes, particularly prescription amphetamines (10 per cent) and Ritalin (8 per cent ).

Nearly three-quarters of all reported prescription drug use was not for prescribed purposes; misused, mishandled or obtained without a prescription.

Social Media

 A staggering 91 per cent of young people say they use the Internet for social networking. Such extensive use can often have negative impacts on mental health.

Numerous studies have linked heavy use of social media and technology with feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and a greater suicide risk.

Late last year, Facebook even admitted that using the social media site excessively was harmful to mental health.  

Constant social media use also makes individuals more vulnerable to cyberbullying, which can have devastating psychological effects.

Luca Borrelli, 21, is a university student with a history of depression and said social media is taking a negative toll on people.

“Social media is further separating everyone and now, because we are so isolated, we are all depressed, even though we think that we are connected,” he said.

Mr Borrelli also said university makes his life more troubling, but the availability of mental health services and studying a psychology degree has helped him to cope better.

“When getting help through UniSA, it does have really good facilities, because you can see a councillor for free and they can refer you to a psychologist if you need,” he said.

“Studying psychology has helped me track a lot of things and given me the understanding of how to actually look at things and why I’ll behave in a certain manner.”



If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

Kids Help on 1800 551 800

Black Dog Institute


Edited to correct the spelling of Mr Luca Borrelli – 26 July 7:42 pm

One response to “Why are university students so prone to mental illness?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: