Open Access Research article

Change in depressive symptoms over higher education and professional establishment - a longitudinal investigation in a national cohort of Swedish nursing students

Anna Christensson13*, Bo Runeson1, Paul W Dickman23 and Marjan Vaez1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Unit for Clinical Cancer Epidemiology, Department of Oncology and Pathology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:343  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-343

Published: 15 June 2010

Abstract

Background

There are indications of a high prevalence of psychological distress among students in higher education and also that distress increases over the course of study. However, not all studies on student distress controlled for sociodemographic differences and few followed development of distress over an extended period through professional establishment. We investigated if there is an independent effect of time in education and the first two years in the profession on depressive symptoms and mapped change over the period in a national cohort of students.

Methods

Data came from LANE, a nation-wide longitudinal panel survey of Swedish nursing students (N = 1700) who responded to annual questionnaires over five years from 2002 to 2007. Depressive symptoms were measured by the Major Depression Inventory and change over time analysed in a linear mixed effects model for repeated measures.

Results

There was a significant change in level of depressive symptoms over time: an increase from the first to later years in education and a decrease to levels similar to baseline after graduation and a year in the profession. The change in symptoms remained significant after adjustment for sociodemographic factors (p < 0.01). Symptom levels differed due to age, gender, household composition and prior nurse assistant training but change over time was similar in all groups. The correlation among the repeated measures, representing within individual correlation over time, varied between 0.44-0.60.

Conclusions

The findings indicate an independent but transitional effect of time in education and professional establishment on depressive symptoms. We think heightened distress over education abates as the graduate accommodates to the profession. Nevertheless, within education, the differences in depressive symptoms associated to demographic factors can help identify student groups more vulnerable to distress. Also, as individual differences in distress seem to persist over time, perhaps students highly distressed in the beginning of education can be helped by awareness among educators of the elevated levels of distress in late education.