Scottish Students Showing Symptoms of Depression Linked To Food Insecurity

A research study has shown that students in Scotland are showing increasing signs of depression, much of which is linked to food insecurity.

Background on the study

The most extensive study on the mental health and wellbeing of college students in Scotland has revealed more than one-third (37%) have experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months, according to a recent report published by the Mental Health Foundation. 

The Thriving Learners survey was live from 24 February to 23 May 2022 and had a total sample size of 2086 college students in Scotland.

More than 2000 students from colleges and universities across Scotland participated in the Thriving Learners study, which also found that more than half of the students surveyed (54%) reported having moderate, moderately severe, or severe symptoms of depression.

Among students who have experienced food insecurity, a quarter (25%) had severe symptoms of depression. Despite the prevalence of mental health problems among the college student population, more than half (55%) said they had concealed a mental health problem due to fear of stigmatization.

For the study, qualitative research was undertaken between February and May 2022, before the harshest impacts of the current cost-of-living crisis took hold. Yet, at this time, one in six students (17%) lived in a household that had run out of food in the past 12 months.

Recommendations made

The findings and others shared within the report have prompted a series of recommendations from the Foundation and Colleges Scotland. These include calls for sustained Scottish Government investment in mental health and wellbeing support at college. For a rundown list of the recommendations made, click here to read the complete list.

College support services are also encouraged to enhance communications to students, particularly those at higher risk of poor mental health, about mental health and wellbeing supports available.

To help address student poverty, the report recommends annual data collection by the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council to understand the scale of the problem better and find solutions.

Without reliable data on college student poverty, it is challenging for colleges to take the proper mitigating steps against the context of reducing funding for the college sector and pressures on the National Health Service.


women worrying over money
Photo: Grabowska via


What are people saying about the findings?

The research study has thrown back the curtain on a real issue that is almost certainly not unique to Scotland. Various stakeholders and other commentators have voiced their opinions since the study results were published in December 2022.

Julie Cameron, Associate Director at the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, said,

“The findings of our Thriving Learners study are alarming. Far from thriving, a high number of students are struggling to pay for food and have poor mental health, including severe symptoms of depression.

The links between financial strain, food insecurity, and poor mental health are undeniable. We are failing our college students (who are primarily young people) if we do not ensure that they all have access to the right support for good physical and mental health.

We know colleges are under a lot of pressure following the budget cuts of recent years. We need the Scottish Government to commit to increased investment and sustained funding for mental health and well-being support for our quarter of a million college students across Scotland.

As well as mental health counseling services in colleges, this investment should feature a wide range of measures to support healthy well-being and prevent mental health problems from developing, such as working with student associations to deliver peer support for students.

Several colleges have run breakfast and lunch clubs to ensure students are getting a nutritious meal during the cost of living crisis, we need to be able to offer this in all colleges in Scotland.”


Students with increased vulnerabilities, including those who are care-experienced, estranged, have unpaid caregiving responsibilities, live with a long-term health condition or identify as another gender, had poorer mental health and wellbeing outcomes across every metric.

More support is urgently needed

The report highlights the need for any support made available to college students to have an increased focus on these groups.

Jon Vincent, Principal of Glasgow Clyde College and Lead Principal for Mental Health, said of the report,

“This research is very stark. To see that so many college students are struggling with their mental health is very worrying, especially when safeguarding the well-being of our students is part of the core responsibility of a college.

While the data is a cause for concern, it does provide us with a much clearer picture of the scale of the challenges students and their families face and allows us to advocate more effectively on their behalf.

I know some of our students have very real struggles with their mental health and anxiety, which is, of course, under more pressure because of the cost of living crisis. But helping students to succeed is why we are here, and I strongly encourage any students needing help to seek support from their college who will be well equipped to do so.”


Meanwhile, Donna Marie Steel, Programmes and Practice Officer at The Robertson Trust, said,

“Through our in-house scholarship program, we have seen first-hand how barriers to engaging in Further or Higher Education can impact a student’s emotional well-being.

This has been clearly highlighted by the study’s findings, and we are pleased to have been able to contribute to this much-needed resource for the sector. We look forward to following the progress of the Mental Health Foundation’s recommendations.”


What does the report show?

The Thriving Learners report might be just a snapshot of a single cohort of students in a particular country at a specific time. That said, it is likely to be a panacea for the life of students elsewhere in the UK, and indeed worldwide, as the global recession takes hold and students struggle to make ends meet.

Such research is vital to keep track of how different elements of society manage mental health issues during the cost-of-living crisis and how services might be redeployed or financed to assist.

However, one thing to come out of the report is clear- that young people in colleges everywhere are struggling with their finances, and this can have a severe knock-on effect on their mental health – neither issue being one that’s easy to solve in the short term.


What do you think of the report’s findings? Are you shocked by the numbers highlighted by the research? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 


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