• anxiety;
  • depression;
  • health service needs;
  • psychological stress;
  • students

Accessible summary

  • The purpose of this research was to assess psychological distress among university female students and identify their mental health service needs.

  • Rates of elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety among university women students was 22.5% and 21.2%, respectively, which is similar to women of the same age in the general population. The mean level of depressive symptoms was however lower among the female students.

  • Results showed that little less than one-third of psychologically distressed women students had received professional help, and only 1.4% had received mental health counselling from nurses.

  • Most of the distressed female students experienced mild to moderate levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms, which indicates a need for prevention or early intervention measures.

  • This need is a challenge for nurses working in the primary care sector, including the educational system. They are in a unique position to screen for psychological distress and provide or initiate preventive services or early interventions, including outreach programmes within schools where most young people are reachable.


Psychological distress among university students, especially young women, is of increasing concern. This study focuses on the prevalence of psychological distress among female university students and their need for mental health services. The analysis is based on two cross-sectional surveys, an internet survey among women students attending the University of Iceland in the spring of 2007, and a postal survey of Icelandic female adults conducted in the Fall of 2006. Psychological distress was measured with the Symptom Checklist-90 Depression and Anxiety subscales. The prevalence of above-threshold depression and anxiety among the university women students was 22.5% and 21.2% respectively. Results showed that the mean depression score was significantly lower among the students than among women of the same age in the general population. However, little less than one-third of students with elevated distress levels received any professional help. Only 1.4% of the distressed students received mental help care from nurses. The high proportion of distressed female students not receiving professional help is a challenge to the primary health-care system and the nursing profession. This also raises questions about the adequacy of the current system of health-care delivery and the potential advantages of on-campus health services, in closer proximity to the students.