oa South African Medical Journal - The burden of depression and anxiety among medical students in South Africa : a cross-sectional survey at the University of Cape Town - research

Volume 110 Number 1
  • ISSN : 0256-9574
  • E-ISSN: 2078-5135



Background. Depressive and anxiety disorders occur at very high rates among medical students. For instance, an international review and meta-analysis estimated the overall pooled crude prevalence of depression or depressive symptoms at 27.2%. However, South African (SA) data are very limited.

Objectives. To determine rates of depression and anxiety among medical students and to examine the associations with various sociodemographic variables (biological sex, gender identity, household income, ethnicity, and clinical v. pre-clinical students). We also examined whether the ‘mini-semester’ of 2017 resulting from the 2016 ‘Fees Must Fall’ student protests was associated with increased depression/anxiety.

Methods. The study was a cross-sectional electronic survey conducted in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, using an anonymous, self-administered online questionnaire. The questionnaire included basic sociodemographic questions, the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale.

The sample consisted of 473 medical students, 333 (70.4%) female and 140 (29.6%) male. Based on ethnic self-identification, 165 (35.6%) were black, 144 (31.1%) white, 88 (19%) coloured, 52 (11.2%) Indian and 8 (1.7%) Asian. There were 239 pre-clinical students (50.5%) and 234 clinical students (49.5%). Of the sample, 36.4% were above the cut-off for major depressive disorder and 45.9% for anxiety disorder. Reported rates of disorders diagnosed by a health professional were 25.0% for depressive disorder and 20.5% for anxiety disorder, and 28.1% of all students were receiving psychotropic medication. Female sex was associated with both depression (prevalence ratio (PR) 3.7; p<0.001) and anxiety diagnoses (PR 4.7; p<0.001). None of the other sociodemographic characteristics showed significant associations. Interestingly, students who undertook the 2017 mini-semester showed an increased rate of depression (PR 2.1; p<0.05) and anxiety diagnoses (PR 2.1; p<0.05).

Conclusions. Nearly one in four students reported depression/anxiety diagnoses and were on psychotropic medication, significantly more than age-based expectations. Even more screened positive for risk of depression/anxiety. Our findings indicate that medical students, particularly females, are at a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Results suggest that the 2016 student protests may have had a direct impact on the mental state of students. Multidisciplinary efforts should be targeted at initiatives to strengthen mental wellbeing and institutional culture around mental health. These efforts may help build resilience in the next generation of health professionals in SA ahead of work in an overburdened health and health education system.

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