Background: Public speaking is a common situation that university students have to endure. This situation is feared or avoided by most individuals with social phobia, which has been associated with low levels of educational attainment. However, epidemiological data on social phobia in university students are scarce. The present study examined the prevalence of social phobia and its subgroups in a university student population. Demographic characteristics and avoidant behavior in educational settings were also examined.
Methods: The Social Phobia Screening Questionnaire (SPSQ)--a validated and DSM-IV compatible instrument, was distributed as a postal survey to 753 randomly selected university students in Sweden. Interpretable questionnaires were obtained from 523 students (69.5%). To investigate subgroups, students who met the SPSQ diagnostic criteria of social phobia were analyzed by hierarchical cluster analysis.
Results: The point prevalence of social phobia among the Swedish university students was 16.1%, comparable with 15.6% previously reported for the general population. Two clusters were distinguished consisting of students scoring either low (discrete subgroup) or high (generalized subgroup) on all cluster variables. The discrete subgroup was more common representing 83% of the cases. Social phobia was associated with use of dysfunctional avoidant strategies in educational situations and in anticipation of public speaking. The disorder was less common among students following a pedagogic university program.
Conclusions: Social phobia was highly prevalent among Swedish university students, most cases pertaining to a mild or discrete form of the disorder. The commonness and severity of social phobia in students did not deviate significantly from the general population suggesting that socially anxious individuals do apply for higher education. However, since avoidance and low educational attainment are commonly reported features, future studies should investigate whether sufferers of social phobia underachieve or abolish their studies prematurely.