Students' depressive symptoms peak at certain times of the year, new research shows
The link between young adults — in particular, university students — and high levels of depression and depressive symptoms is well documented.
But when exactly are they at their highest? Are stress levels and risks of depressive episodes as elevated on campus in September as they are in, say, April?
No, says a just-published paper in the Journal of Youth & Adolescence. Erin Barker, associate professor of psychology in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science and the paper’s lead author, says depressive symptoms among university students peaks in December, just as end-of-term papers become due and final exams loom.
“Peaks in depressive symptoms correlate with peaks in perceived academic stress,” she says.
“When students feel more pressure and they have more to do, their depressive symptoms rise with those feelings. It really does correspond with the academic cycle.”
Barker and her colleagues examined patterns of change in depressive symptoms in two groups: first-year students at the University of Alberta and a mix of first-, second- and third-year students at Concordia.
They asked the two groups about their feelings of stress and depression over the course of an academic year. The students filled out questionnaires three or four times — in September, in December, in January and in April.
“As everybody knows, there is a natural stress cycle that oscillates across the academic year,” she says.
“It builds across the semester and culminates with final exams. Because we had measured depressive systems multiple times across the academic year, we were able to look to see if depressive symptoms do follow that expected pattern—and they do.”
Stress and depression did not appear more common in one year than another. Third-year students could display depressive symptoms as much as first-years. Both feeling stressed and actual workload were associated with symptoms.
“Students who had more work to do, on average, across the semester did not have higher levels of depressive symptoms,” Barker says.
“It was only when they had more to do than they were used to — when they had an overload — that their symptom levels rose. This could happen, for instance, if their deadlines for their academic assignments lined up in such a way that they were all due at once. Then they might feel overwhelmed. But they might not have that feeling the following semester if their deadlines were more spread out.”
Helping earlier and better
Barker says depression in students has been extensively studied, but notes the existing literature rarely, if ever, addresses the time of year when students are most at risk.
By being able to predict when symptoms are highest during the academic year, universities will be able to better help those who are most in danger of falling into depressive episodes.
“It would be helpful to identify at-risk students earlier on in the semester,” she says.
“If a student starts the semester off in September or January already feeling stressed, they might be the ones who need more support throughout the academic year. And, then it would be helpful to have crisis support readily available that can be accessed at any point across the semester if a student is feeling overwhelmed.”
As for parents who are concerned that their student children may be at risk of depression or stress, Barker suggests they monitor their behaviour and be aware of possible symptoms, or of feelings of being overwhelmed.
“Parents should be aware of changes in eating and sleeping patterns, and take note of whether their child recovers after the expected stressful period,” she says.
“We should expect some stress — it’s a stressful time — but when it is done, the symptoms should abate to some degree. If they do not, then parents will want to be watchful and intervene in ways they feel that they can, like connecting their students to the support they need.”
Read the cited study, “The Rise and Fall of Depressive Symptoms and Academic Stress in Two Samples of University Students”.