Background: Depression is a common disorder that impacts an individual's ability to perform life activities, including those required by the workplace. Academic performance can be viewed as a direct parallel to workforce performance, with students belonging to a unique set of individuals whose ability to perform can be measured on criteria applied by an observer and by self-report. While the prevalence of depression for this group is high and preparation for entry into the workplace is critical for these individuals, this relationship has not been adequately investigated.
Aims of the study: This study investigates the relationship between depression and its treatments and the academic performance of undergraduate students.
Methods: Data regarding academics, health and productivity for students from Western Michigan University were obtained from the University's Registrar's Office, the campus Health Center and a survey delivered to the students. The primary outcomes of interest were the student's grade point average (GPA), an objective, observer generated measure of academic productivity, and the students' self-reported academic performance.
Results: Diagnosed depression was associated with a 0.49 point, or half a letter grade, decrease in student GPA, while treatment was associated with a protective effect of approximately 0.44 points. The self-reported data regarding the impact of depression on the performance of academic tasks was consistent with these findings. Depressed students reported a pattern of increasing interference of depression symptoms with academic performance peaking in the month of diagnosis and decreasing thereafter with the lowest levels reported in months 4 through 6 post-diagnosis, each of which is significantly less than the month of diagnosis.
Discussion: The finding of a significant relationship between depression and academic performance was robust to the variety of analyses employed within this study. However, interpretation of the findings must be tempered by a number of facts. The sample was drawn from a subset of students at a single university, those willing to complete a questionnaire regarding their health and productivity. Due to non-availability of the treatment data from other health care providers, the treatment variable used within the regression models represents an imprecise proxy for the totality of treatment methods received by depressed subjects from a variety of on-campus and off-campus health care providers. Another challenge to the interpretation of this data is the interrelatedness of depression and school performance. Because of this, it was not possible to evaluate the extent to which the association between depression and academic performance is driven by causality in either direction.
Implications for health care provision and use: While depression and its effects have been studied in many different population groups and subgroups, the effect of this disease on college students has not been well documented. This research demonstrates the impact of depression and the effectiveness of its treatment on a student sample. From a public health perspective, this analysis highlights the importance of access to mental health treatment facilities among the college aged and the potential value of efforts to educate this population segment on the availability of that resource.