Prevalence and risk factors for mental health problems in university undergraduate students: A systematic review with meta-analysis

J Affect Disord. 2021 Mar 26;287:282-292. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.03.054. Online ahead of print.


Background: Effective targeting of services requires that we establish which undergraduates are at increased risk of mental health problems at university. We aimed to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of the prevalence and risk factors for mental health problems in undergraduates.

Methods: We searched MEDLINE, PsycInfo, EMBASE and the Cochrane Central Register. Eligible studies were assessed using the Quality of Prognostic Studies checklist and narratively synthesised. Pooled prevalence of depression and suicide-related outcomes, and associated risk factors (odds ratios) were estimated using random-effects meta-analyses.

Results: Sixty-six eligible studies of varying quality were included in a narrative synthesis. The pooled prevalence of depression (eight studies; 13,790 participants) was 25% (95% CI 17%, 35%) and the pooled prevalence of suicide-related outcomes (four studies; 2,586 participants) was 14% (95% CI 0%, 44%). Thirteen studies contributed to meta-analytic syntheses of 12 depression-related and four suicide-related risk factors. Presenting with a current mental health problem, negative rumination, parent separation, experiences of sexual harassment and parental depression significantly predicted depression outcomes. Childhood adversity, baseline mental health problems and financial difficulties significantly predicted suicide-related outcomes.

Limitations: Student mental health is a heterogeneous research area and is hampered by the use of imprecise terms, both for describing risk factors and mental health outcomes. These inconsistencies limit the extent to which datasets can be meaningfully synthesised.

Conclusions: This review evidences the importance of a range of risk factors for poor undergraduate mental health. Interventions should be developed to target modifiable risk factors and prevent poor mental health outcomes. Systematic review registration: PROSPERO registration CRD42019144927.

Keywords: Mental health; Risk factors; Systematic review; Undergraduate; University students.

Publication types

  • Review