The relationship between depression symptoms and academic performance among first-year undergraduate students at a South African university: a cross-sectional study

Background: South African universities face a challenge of low throughput rates, with most students failing to complete their studies within the minimum regulatory time. Literature has begun to investigate the contribution of well-being, including mental health, with depression among students being one of the most common mental disorders explored. However, locally relevant research exploring associations between depression and academic performance has been limited. This research hypothesizes that the presence of depression symptoms, when controlling for key socio-demographic factors, has an adverse impact on student academic outcomes and contributes to the delay in the academic progression of students. Methods: The study used a cross-sectional design. Data were collected in 2019 from first-time, first-year undergraduate students using a self-administered online questionnaire. In total, 1,642 students completed the survey. The Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) was used to screen for depression symptoms. Data on students' academic performance were obtained from institutional records. Bivariate and multivariate regression analyses were used to examine associations between depression symptoms and academic performance. Results: Most participants (76%) successfully progressed (meeting the requirements to proceed to the second year of university study). Of the participants, 10% displayed symptoms of severe depression. The likelihood of progression delay (not meeting the academic requirements to proceed to the second year of university study) increased with the severity of depression symptoms. Moderate depression symptoms nearly doubled the adjusted odds of progression delay (aOR = 1.98, 95% CI: 1.30-3.00, p = 0.001). The likelihood of progression delay was nearly tripled by moderate severe depression symptoms (aOR = 2.70, 95% CI:1.70-4.36, p < 0.001) and severe depression symptoms (aOR = 2.59, 95% CI:1.54-4.36, p < 0.001). The model controlled for field of study, financial aid support as well as sex and race. Conclusion: Higher levels of depression symptoms among first-year university students are associated with a greater likelihood of progression delay and may contribute to the low throughput rates currently seen in South African universities. It is important for students, universities and government departments to recognize student mental wellness needs and how these can be met.
College students; Depression; Higher education institution; Mental health; Progression.