Background: Mental health problems in college and their associations with academic performance are not well understood. The main aim of this study was to investigate to what extent mental health problems are associated with academic functioning.
Methods: As part of the World Mental Health Surveys International College Student project, 12-month mental health problems among freshmen (N = 4921) was assessed in an e-survey of students at KU Leuven University in Leuven, Belgium. The associations of mental health problems with academic functioning (expressed in terms of academic year percentage [or AYP] and grade point average [GPA]) were examined across academic departments.
Results: Approximately one in three freshman reports mental health problems in the past year, with internalizing and externalizing problems both associated with reduced academic functioning (2.9-4.7% AYP reduction, corresponding to 0.2-0.3 GPA reduction). The association of externalizing problems with individual-level academic functioning was significantly higher in academic departments with comparatively low average academic functioning.
Limitations: Limited sample size precluded further investigation of interactions between department-level and student-level variables. No information was available on freshman secondary school academic performance.
Conclusions: Mental health problems are common in college freshman, and clearly associated with lower academic functioning. Additional research is needed to examine the potentially causal nature of this association, and, if so, whether interventions aimed at treating mental health problems might improve academic performance.
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