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BACKGROUND: Although there is growing interest in mental health problems in university students there is limited understanding of the scope of need and determinants to inform intervention efforts. AIMS: To longitudinally examine the extent and persistence of mental health symptoms and the importance of psychosocial and lifestyle factors for student mental health and academic outcomes. METHOD: Undergraduates at a Canadian university were invited to complete electronic surveys at entry and completion of their first year. The baseline survey measured important distal and proximal risk factors and the follow-up assessed mental health and well-being. Surveys were linked to academic grades. Multivariable models of risk factors and mental health and academic outcomes were fit and adjusted for confounders. RESULTS: In 1530 students surveyed at entry to university 28% and 33% screened positive for clinically significant depressive and anxiety symptoms respectively, which increased to 36% and 39% at the completion of first year. Over the academic year, 14% of students reported suicidal thoughts and 1.6% suicide attempts. Moreover, there was persistence and overlap in these mental health outcomes. Modifiable psychosocial and lifestyle factors at entry were associated with positive screens for mental health outcomes at completion of first year, while anxiety and depressive symptoms were associated with lower grades and university well-being. CONCLUSIONS: Clinically significant mental health symptoms are common and persistent among first-year university students and have a negative impact on academic performance and well-being. A comprehensive mental health strategy that includes a whole university approach to prevention and targeted early-intervention measures and associated research is justified.

Original publication




Journal article


BJPsych Open

Publication Date





Student mental health, anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, prevention and early-intervention, risk factors