Psychiatric difficulties amongst UK university students: the preventative role of sleep, self-disgust and loneliness

Vulnerability to psychiatric distress and mental health difficulties remains high in university students. Our work determined the prevalence and correlates of multiple psychiatric risk factors including anxiety, depression, mania, stress, psychotic experiences, suicidal ideation, and loneliness.
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Psychiatric difficulties amongst UK university students: the preventative role of sleep, self-disgust and loneliness

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Uncovering the prevalence of psychiatric symptoms amongst individuals perusing university level study

In a recently published dataset in Scientific Data conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Lincoln, Oxford, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Northumbria University, we uncover the prevalence and correlates of psychiatric difficulties in university students studying in the UK. Typically studies focus on specific symptoms,  single-item scales, or bespoke measures - with few providing comprehensive examination of risk factors. Therefore, using well-validated scales with robust psychometric properties, our recent work examined the prevalence of anxiety, depression, mania, stress, psychotic experiences, suicidal ideation, and loneliness in students from various university institutions in the United Kingdom. Here, the prevelance rates emerged provide cause for concern:

  • Stress: The most prominent factor, with 85% of students reporting moderate to severe levels of perceived stress. 
  • Loneliness: 67% of students indicated a significant degree of loneliness.
  • Depression: Almost half of the sample (47%) reported moderate to severe symptoms.
  • Anxiety & Insomnia:  44% reported moderate to severe levels of anxiety and insomnia respectively.
  • Mania: 39% of the sampled students were deemed at-risk for symptoms of mania.
  • Suicidal Ideation: A startling number of students (37%) were deemed at risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
  • Psychotic Experiences:  30% of students were deemed at risk of experiencing psychotic-like experiences.

Precipitating factors related to the university experience 

University students face many stressors that may contribute to the experience of distress and psychiatric difficulties. The initial transition to university level study involves increased academic standards alongside a shift towards more independent and less structured methods of learning which  may prove to be particularly stressful for some. Moreover, financial strain and debt paired with the challenge of living on a self-managed and reduced budget for the first time may prove especially difficult for UK students who may struggle with the increasingly higher costs of living and increased tuition fees. Consequently, many opt to conduct part-time work, leaving less time for independent study and social activities. Finally, more frequent social activities associated with the university lifestyle, occurring in the absence of parental oversight, may present opportunities for increased alcohol intake, potential substance use and formation of romantic relationships and new friendship groups. The culmination of these factors foster an environment which precipitates psychiatric difficulty amongst young adults who are vulnerable.

Improving institutional wellbeing services

Despite being the first point of referral, institutional well-being services in the UK consistently fail to meet the demand of students seeking support for their mental health. Typically, students receiving in-house talking therapies report the process, from sign-up to discharge, as cumbersome and ineffective in nature. Unfortunately, whilst providing more comprehensive support, NHS  services are equally as strained. If improvements are to be made on an institutional level, the following factors should be considered:
  • Data: Periodic monitoring and evaluation of student mental health would allow each institution to approximate the specific needs of students, required availability of programmes and appropriate staffing and with the benefit of improving the efficacy of in-house treatment and assessment. Here, any prospective data would  clarify directionality and causality of mental health outcomes, allowing modifiable risk-factors to be identified.
  • Money: Universities should provide adequate financial support to facilitate this.
  • Education and awareness: New students should be provided with detailed information concerning the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties in the format of a self-help pamphlet disseminating all key information and contacts related to both internal and external services. Additionally, universities may collaborate with existing mental health organizations with the goal of increasing awareness of support available (e.g. The Samaritans, University Nightline, Mind, Beat, First Steps) through invited talks and/or workshops.

What about Prevention?

 Whilst  existing student wellbeing services should be improved,  a greater emphasis on prevention may attenuate the onset and/or exacerbation of symptom presentation occurring in response to stress. Indeed, students experiencing an acute period of distress  may better respond when interventions target modifiable psychological risk-factors.  

  1. Reducing Loneliness: The experience of loneliness is known to predict stress,  anxiety and depression. The current data evidenced over two thirds of students reported feeling lonely, highlighting a focal point for intervention. In this context, institutions and collegial societies may organise events to facilitate meeting new people, showcase volunteering opportunities, and group exercises to help those struggling form a stable social group. 
  2. Targeting Sleep: If we consider the liniar emergence of psychiatric distress, anxiety and stress are significant predictors of insomnia - one of the greatest risk factors for depression. When stress, anxiety and symptoms of insomnia emerge, several cognitive processes (e.g., cognitive biases, misperception of symptoms, catastrophizing)  facilitate what was an initially acute disturbance to a chronic problem. In the context of the symptoms examined in our study, we must think about the most appropriate targets to facilitate early intervention. Sleep may be one such target. Indeed, those with insomnia become consumed with getting more sleep, altering their normal pattern of behaviour to favour more time in bed with the hope of achieving sleep (known as behavioural sleep effort). This may involve skipping class, work, and  social activities to catch up with sleep, going to bed  earlier than normal. However, this leads to a  circadian rhythm shift and may occur at a time when the homeostatic drive for sleep has not reached full potential. A possible pre-existing  problem amongst individuals experiencing loneliness in the face of greater isolation and excessive time at home, resulting in naps and attempting to sleep out of boredom. Therefore students should be provided with sleep education as a means of curbing insomnia. Indeed, recent work found that individuals experiencing acute insomnia fully remised after a single session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia and a self-help pamphlet. 
  3. Self Esteem & Perception : One of the most concerning outcomes pertains to the number of students at-risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Clinical levels of anxiety, stress, insomnia, depression, loneliness, and psychotic like experiences all serve to predict the onset of suicidal ideation. However, each of these disorders requires complex treatment, adherence, and can be psychologically demanding to complete alongside full time higher education study. Here, research highlights several possible modifiable risk factors which may be readily targeted by institutional services. More specifically, by improving self-perception across a number of domains: self esteem, self-disgust, and physical appearance

The interaction between insomnia, self-perception and loneliness

Self-disgust is a self-conscious emotion of disgust and revulsion directed towards the self in a way which manifests as physical ('I find myself repulsive') and/or behavioural ('I often do things I find revolting') in nature. Like insomnia and loneliness, expressing self-disgust also predicts suicidal thoughts and experience. Theoretically, emotional regulation difficulties and comorbid anxiety and depression may serve to diminish one's self-perception leading to the emergence of self-disgust. Indeed, insomnia is already related to deficits in physical perception due to the manifestation of physiological changes to in facial appearance (skin blood coloration, muscle tone) due to sleep loss and fatigue. Here, cognitive biases accentuate these perpetual deficits  dues to excessive monitoring of physical cures related to poor sleep which are subsequently interpreted in a way that confirms the nature of insomnia, known as an interpretive bias. Together, these factors may increase social withdrawal and avoidance of social events due to poor self esteem and the need to catch up with sleep (e.g., I look / feel too tired to go out). Over time, these mechanisms cycle to worsen psychiatric distress and symptoms of self-disgust whilst also increasing the experience of loneliness. As mentioned, self-disgust predicts suicidal ideation. However, one of the strongest predictors of completed suicides appears to be the experience of outward disgust with the world. In the current context, increased social isolation may shift the focus of disgust externally to others/the world (as a source of blame) eventually contributing to total withdrawal from life and suicidal ideation. If correct, then self-disgust would also be a worthwhile target for assessment and intervention in preventing the transition from insomnia symptoms to increased suicidal ideation.

 Concluding remarks 

As demonstrated by our dataset, psychiatric difficulties amongst UK university studies remain on the rise. Here we highlight the interaction possible targets for early intervention: insomnia, self-perception and loneliness. Moving forward research should focus on collecting longitudinal data to determine the key causal mechanisms at play. Furthermore, universities and their wellbeing services should  prioritise key preventative targets. 
For further insight, explore the complete study here:
Akram U, Irvine K, Allen S, Akram A, Stevenson JC. Data on the prevalence of anxiety, depression, mania, insomnia, stress, suicidal ideation, psychotic experiences and loneliness in UK university students. Scientific Data, 2023,

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Go to the profile of Faith Ka Shun Chan
8 months ago

This is Faith from University of Nottingham Ningbo China, I am very much concerned about students' mental health after reading your latest finding Umair, Jodie and Kamila. I really hope students are enjoying our study provided and being positive to face their challenges in their study. But if the stress and pressure not from the academic side, which is extremely difficult for us to address too. But anyway - the findings looks that is our opportunity seeing what kind of support to be provided and helped our students in the UK. 

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