Indulging in one negative behaviour such as heavy drinking can lead college students towards a vicious cycle of poor lifestyle choices, lack of sleep, mental distress and low grades, a study has warned.
For the study by researchers from Binghamton University in the US, 558 students from different US colleges completed an anonymous survey on academic performance, daytime sleepiness, substance use and mental distress.
“We used a robust data-mining technique to identify associations between mental distress in college students with substance abuse, sleep, social behaviors, academic attitude and behaviours, and GPA,” said Lina Begdache, assistant professor at Binghamton University.
“Positive behaviours such as abstinence from substance use, studious attitudes and responsibility toward work and family are reflective of a brain chemistry profile that supports mood and maturation of the prefrontal cortex of the brain,” Begdache said in a statement.
“The latter matures last and supports impulse and emotional control as well as rationalisation of thoughts,” she said.
“We identified potential cyclic behaviours that associate with severe mental distress that are linked to a change in brain chemistry that supports substance abuse, poor academic attitude and performance, poor sleep patterns, and neglect of family and work,” Begdache said.
“The novelty of these findings is that we are proposing, based on the neuroscience of these behaviours, that one action may be leading to another until a vicious cycle sets in,” she said.
Low mental distress in college students was associated with no substance abuse, responsible attitude toward learning as well as good academic efforts, high GPA (of above 3.0) and limited daytime sleepiness.
Mild mental distress correlated with borderline work neglect and with a marginal negative association with grade-point average.
Severe mental distress correlated with substance abuse, extreme daytime sleepiness, poor academic attitude and low GPA.
This change in the direction of associations may reflect the neuroanatomical and neurochemical changes triggered by these factors that eventually contribute to mental distress.
The results demonstrate that manageable lifestyle factors contribute to mental health in college students, which become potentially cyclic events that may impact academic performance.
“These factors that are associated with mental distress in college students are controllable factors, meaning that proper education of students may reduce risk of mental distress on college campuses, which is on the rise,” said Begdache.
“It is important for young adults to recognise that one behaviour may lead to a domino effect,” said Begdache.
For instance, using drugs recreationally, abusing alcohol or using “study” drugs not only affects brain chemistry but may affect diet and sleep, which may further alter brain function and brain maturity, researchers said.
Reduced brain maturity increases impulsivity, reduces emotional control and cognitive functions as well as GPA, eventually increasing mental distress with a potential long-lasting effect,” said Begdache.
The researchers also identified a ‘virtuous cycle’. When young adults follow a healthy lifestyle (diet, sleep and exercise), they are more likely to avoid drugs and alcohol, which supports a normal brain maturity, which is then reflected in a higher GPA and responsible attitudes toward learning, work and family.