Interventions for common mental health problems among university and college students: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials

J Psychiatr Res. 2018 Dec;107:1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.09.018. Epub 2018 Sep 29.


Common mental health problems (CMHPs), such as depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are internalizing disorders with high comorbidity. University and college students are under many stressors and transitional events, and students fall within the age range when CMHPs are at their developmental peak. Compared to the expanded effort to explore and treat CMHPs, there has been no a meta-analysis that comprehensively reviewed the interventions for CMHPs and examined the effects of interventions for CMHPs in college students. The objective of this review is to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) examining interventions for CMHPs among university and college students and to estimate their post-intervention effect size (ES), as well as follow-up ES, for depression, anxiety disorder, OCD and PTSD separately. Meta-analytic procedures were conducted in accordance with PRISMA guidelines. We reviewed 7768 abstracts from which 331 full-text articles were reviewed and 51 RCTs were included in the analysis. We found moderate effect sizes for both depression (Hedges' g = -0.60) and anxiety disorder (Hedges' g = -0.48). There was no evidence that existing interventions for OCD or PTSD were effective in this population. For interventions with high number of papers, we performed subgroup analysis and found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions were effective for both depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and attention/perception modification was effective for GAD; other interventions (i.e. art, exercise and peer support) had the highest ES for both depression and GAD among university and college students.

Keywords: Anxiety disorder; Depression; Intervention; Meta-analysis; OCD; Obsessive-compulsive disorder; PTSD; Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Psychotherapy / statistics & numerical data
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic* / statistics & numerical data
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • Students* / statistics & numerical data
  • Universities* / statistics & numerical data