Academic and non-academic predictors of student psychological distress: the role of social identity and loneliness

Background: University students experience high rates of stress and mental illness; however, few studies have comprehensively examined the impact of academic and non-academic stressors on student mental health. Similarly, there has been little focus on the role of social groups in protecting against mental distress in this young adult group.

Aim: To identify the key social determinants of mental health symptoms in a student population.

Methods: Using an online survey, we administered measures of social connectedness and mental health symptoms alongside academic and non-academic stressors to a large sample of UK university students.

Results: Loneliness was the strongest overall predictor of mental distress, while assessment stress was the most important academic predictor. Strong identification with university friendship groups was most protective against distress relative to other social identities, and the beneficial impact of identification on symptoms was mediated by reduced loneliness.

Conclusions: The study highlights the benefits of establishing strong social connections at university and the importance of minimising stress associated with assessment tasks.