Background: The age at which most young people are in higher education is also the age of peak onset for mental and substance use disorders, with these having their first onset before age 24 in 75% of cases. In most developed countries, over 50% of young people are in higher education.
Aims: To review the evidence for prevention and early intervention in mental health problems in higher education students. The review was limited to interventions targeted to anxiety, depression and alcohol misuse.
Methods: Interventions to review were identified by searching PubMed, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Interventions were included if they were designed to specifically prevent or intervene early in the general (non-health professional) higher education student population, in one or more of the following areas: anxiety, depression or alcohol misuse symptoms, mental health literacy, stigma and one or more behavioural outcomes.
Results: For interventions to prevent or intervene early for alcohol misuse, evidence of effectiveness is strongest for brief motivational interventions and for personalized normative interventions delivered using computers or in individual face-to-face sessions. Few interventions to prevent or intervene early with depression or anxiety were identified. These were mostly face-to-face, cognitive–behavioural/skill-based interventions. One social marketing intervention to raise awareness of depression and treatments showed some evidence of effectiveness.
Conclusions: There is very limited evidence that interventions are effective in preventing or intervening early with depression and anxiety disorders in higher education students. Further studies, possibly involving interventions that have shown promise in other populations, are needed.