Previous research has shown a relationship between financial difficulties and poor mental health in students, but most research is cross-sectional. To examine longitudinal relationships over time between financial variables and mental health in students. A national sample of 454 first year British undergraduate students completed measures of mental health and financial variables at up to four time points across a year. Cross-sectional relationships were found between poorer mental health and female gender, having a disability and non-white ethnicity. Greater financial difficulties predicted greater depression and stress cross-sectionally, and also predicted poorer anxiety, global mental health and alcohol dependence over time. Depression worsened over time for those who had considered abandoning studies or not coming to university for financial reasons, and there were effects for how students viewed their student loan. Anxiety and alcohol dependence also predicted worsening financial situation suggesting a bi-directional relationship. Financial difficulties appear to lead to poor mental health in students with the possibility of a vicious cycle occurring.
University represents a high risk time for mental health problems, with the start of university coinciding with the mean age of onset for many psychiatric disorders (Reavley et al. 2012). A United States (US) nationwide survey reported that almost half of all university-aged students have a psychiatric disorder which has functionally impaired them during the last academic year; however similar rates were reported for similar aged peers who did not attend university (Blanco et al. 2008). Similarly, Eisenberg et al. (2007) found that 15.6 % of US university students met criteria for a depressive or anxiety disorder. In Turkey, Bayram and Bilgel (2008) found moderately severe depression in 27 % of students and moderately severe anxiety in 47 %. Research also suggests that mental health may worsen over the course of university: Andrews and Wilding (2004) found that 9 % of United Kingdom (UK) students without a history of mental health problems at the start of university went on to develop clinical depression halfway through their degree. They also found that 20 % became clinically anxious over this time period.
The potential impact of poor mental health amongst students has raised growing concerns with studies reporting it to interfere with university attendance, as well as reducing the likelihood of completing university (Blanco et al. 2008). High rates of substance use and alcohol use disorders are reported in students (Dawson et al. 2004; Slutske 2005), though rates may be similar to non-student populations (Blanco et al. 2008). Research in the US has also shown a high prevalence of suicidal ideation in students (Garlow et al. 2008).
One factor which has consistently been shown to predict poor mental health in students is financial difficulties. A number of studies examining UK based students have shown that mental health problems are linked to financial problems (Andrews and Wilding 2004; Roberts et al. 2000, 1999), level of debt (Carney et al. 2005) and concern about finances (Cooke et al. 2004; Jessop et al. 2005). The pooled findings from a meta-analysis by Richardson et al. (2013) found that 41.7 % of those with a mental health disorder report being in debt, in comparison to 17.5 % who report having no debt.