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June 12, 2018
by Patricia Tomasi

Attention High School Graduates – Research Reveals Mental Health Problems Can Affect Your Academic Performance During The First Year Of College

June 12, 2018 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

Graduating or know someone that's graduating from high school this month? Perhaps your son or daughter? After celebrating all the achievements and accomplishments of the past several years while looking ahead to continuing studies at college or university in the fall, make sure you also take into account your mental health or the mental health of your child.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, mental health problems are common in college freshmen and are also associated with lower academic functioning.

“Students who have mental health problems in the past year have, on average, a decrease of 2.9-4.7 per cent of their academic year percentage (or 0.2-0.3 decrease in grade point average) at the end of the academic year compared to those without these problems,” note the study’s authors. “That means that a student who functions on an academic level in the 50th percentile will make a drop to the 38th and 35th percentile in the presence of internalizing or externalizing mental health problems.”

Even though it’s been shown in studies that college students have a lower risk of mental health disorders than non-college students, studies reveal that one in three and as high as 50 per cent of college students grapple with a mental health disorder. It’s during college when most mental health disorders appear for the first time.

Researchers wanted to study the effect of mental health disorders on academic performance because this area isn’t widely looked at. Studies have tended to concentrate on other adverse effects of early adulthood mental health disorders such as long-term emotional and physical problems and problems with relationships.

“Studies that investigate the association between mental health distress and academic performance in college are much scarcer,” note the study’s authors. “We address these shortcomings in the current report by using data obtained in the Leuven College Surveys.”

The study took place in Belgium with Belgian students from Belgium’s largest university, KU Leuven. Though approximately 70 per cent of Belgian high school students pursue secondary education, only 37-39 per cent will go on to graduate and studies have shown that students mental health disorders are twice as likely to drop out.

Researchers used surveys from the International College Student project of the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. Researchers looked at the prevalence of mental health problems over the period of a year and university records to examine the academic performance of study participants.

Researchers note that they used a large study sample for the study, something other studies on a similar topic failed to do. A total of 4921 freshmen participated in the study. To help with recruitment, researchers included an incentive of participation in a raffle for 20 euro store credit coupons upon completion of the survey. This is the first study of its kind that looked at mental health problems of college freshmen over the period of a year and what their effect was, if any, on academic performance.

“These elements make the innovation or impact of this paper above and beyond what has been done in the field of college mental health before,” write the study’s authors. “Two main findings stand out.”

The two main findings of the study were that first, college freshmen with mental health problems have “significant’ lower academic functioning than other students, and second, that the type of mental health disorder varies across academic departments. Researchers found that whereas “internalizing” mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation is consistent across all academic departments, “externalizing” mental health disorders such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity, conduct health disorder, problems with substance use and crime and violence-related problems varies across academic departments.

“The role of externalizing problems in college is far from settled,” note the study’s authors, “mostly confined to studies of ADHD and high-risk health behaviors and our data point to the need of studying these problems among college students in the future.”

Researchers were also able to examine which academic departments had more of a prevalence of mental health disorders than others. The Global Appraisal of Individual Needs Short Screener (GAIN-SS) was used to assess mental health problems in students. The GAIN-SS is able to screen for depression, anxiety, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress, suicidal ideation, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity, conduct disorder, substance use problems, and crime and violence-related problems.

“Such an approach may be especially valuable given that students’ wellbeing and performance are known to be linked to peer-group characteristics, student-faculty interactions and general institution characteristics,” note the study’s authors.

Researchers hope their study and others like it lead to an increase and improvement in current mental health treatment and prevention programs in college.



Bruffaerts, Mortier, Kiekens, Auerbach , Cuijpers, Demyttenaer, Green, Nock, Kessler, (Jan 2018), Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning,


About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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