Half of first-year University students feel some level of anxiety or depression which they find problematic, according to preliminary results of a study about mental health on campus. This does not mean that half the students have mental health problems and need therapy or medication, psychiatrist David Cassar cautioned.
One had to keep in mind that first-year students were facing the daunting new and stressful world of university, added Dr Cassar, who is the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the university.
He explained how the department, with the collaboration of the pro-rector’s office, was carrying out a five-year research study into the mental health of students. Last year, the first year of the study, 1,333 first-year students from various courses were given a questionnaire to fill in at the beginning and at the end of their course. The same students will be followed for five years.
Dr Cassar yesterday gave an overview of the preliminary results following last year’s interviews.
He was speaking during a conference organised by the Malta Medical Students’ Association to mark World Mental Health Day yesterday. The results showed that 51 per cent of students experienced anxiety or depression to a level which they felt was a problem to them. Another 31 per cent of students felt they had some form of eating disorder which did not necessarily mean it was as extreme as anorexia or bulimia. About 17 per cent thought their alcohol habit was affecting their lives, while four per cent felt they had an issue with drugs.
A pilot study carried out on first-year medical students two years ago, before the five-year research started, showed that 11.4 per cent felt bullied, 14.6 per cent felt lonely and 7.4 per cent sought help.
Dr Cassar said mental health problems affected the manner in which a student performed at university and could be triggered by a variety of factors, including stress. For this reason it was important for students to learn to ask for help if they felt weighed down, he said, adding that the University offered a counselling service. Dr Cassar urged students to find methods of coping with stress by, for example, learning what study method worked for them, not comparing themselves to peers, accepting their limits and not pushing themselves too hard.
He pointed out that it was normal for a person to forget what they had studied. Learning was a chemical process that went on in the brain and this took time. Research showed that the average student remembered three minutes from an hour-long lecture. It also showed that if a student learnt something today, he would remember 20 per cent of it within a month. This would increase to about 50 or 60 per cent if the student reviewed the topic after a week. Dr Cassar urged students not to underestimate the importance of leisure time adding that it was important to take breaks and enjoy time off studying. This actually was beneficial to memorising as research showed the best study pattern involved studying for 20 minute sessions broken up by 10 minute breaks.
University pro-rector Mary Anne Lauri said she was pleased to see that over the past two years students were speaking up about mental health problems and asking for help. This showed they were breaking through the taboo.
In a statement issued to mark World Mental Health Day, Parliamentary Secretary Mario Galea said depression and anxiety were on the increase and urged people suffering from mental health problems to ask for help.
On a similar note, Health Minister Joseph Cassar yesterday visited Maia Psychology Centre, a private clinic in Naxxar, which launched a computerised cognitive behavioural programme to treat mild to moderate anxiety and depression. The centre entered into a partnership with UK healthcare company Ultrasis that made its treatment programme – Beating the Blues – available at the centre.
Through the programme a patient is assessed by a psychologist before being given a password to access the online programme at home. The programme consists of 50-minute sessions to be held once a week for eight weeks. During a visit to Saint James Hospital, Sliema, Labour leader Joseph Muscat also called for more public-private partnerships in the health sector. He said such partnerships should not take place through individual tenders but as part of a longsighted strategy.