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Students with mental health issues more likely use alcohol to cope with depression: study

teen drinking in Canada

teen drinking in CanadaA new Canadian study finds that undergraduate students with mental health issues are at risk of developing alcohol problems, as they are more likely to use drinking as a way to cope with depression.

Across Canada, mental health issues on university and college campuses have become a significant concern, with more and more students reporting higher stress and anxiety levels.

Roughly one-fifth of Canadian postsecondary students are depressed, anxious or dealing with other mental health issues, according to a 2016 survey of 44,000 students at 41 different post secondary institutions.

The second of its kind in Canada, the survey noted an increase in mental health problems from three years prior, with eight per cent fewer students than in 2013 reporting either very good or excellent health, between three and four per cent more saying that they had experienced anxiety, depression and stress that had affected their academic performance and 13 per cent saying they had seriously considered suicide over the previous year, up 3.5 per cent from 2013.

The survey “builds a case for increased resources to help support student mental health on campus and for health professionals to be able to understand what is really happening with our students,” said Jennifer Hamilton, executive director of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which released the study.

Students also face potential problems related to drinking, a perennial concern on campus and one that can be particularly troubling for students dealing with mental health issues.

“University tends to be an environment that is conducive to heavy alcohol consumption,” say the authors of a new study published in the journal Addictive Behaviours. “Thus, undergraduates with elevated social anxiety may learn to use alcohol as a way of forming new social relationships and alleviating some of the anxiety associated with the new social tasks they are facing.”

Prior research has drawn a link between high social anxiety and elevated levels of alcohol problems for undergraduates, with students typically turning to alcohol to either reduce the tension of social encounters, to dampen stress responses or to self-medicate. The new study looked at a particularly severe form of social anxiety, social avoidance, and found that students with social avoidance problems increasingly use alcohol to cope with depression.

The study used data collected at an unnamed university in eastern Canada from 219 undergraduates (72.6 per cent women, with a mean age of 20.6 years) who filled out questionnaires at four different time periods, each separated by six months. The researchers found that a student’s social avoidance behaviour indicated at the first time period was apt to predict increases in drinking as a way to cope with depression in later time periods.

“We found social avoidance predicted increases in all five drinking motives: coping with anxiety motives, coping with depression motives, conformity, social, and enhancement over twelve months, but only coping with depression motives was linked to increasing alcohol problems over time,” say the study’s authors.

“This indicates socially avoidant undergraduates are motivated to drink for a wide range of reasons, but only drinking to cope with depression is contributing to their increased alcohol-related problems over time,” they write.

The authors suggest that undergraduates with social avoidance would benefit from learning more adaptive coping strategies to help address their depressive symptoms.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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