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Irrational beliefs among undergraduate students up risk of emotional disturbance

Dr Margaret Shi
20 Mar 2020

Undergraduate students in Hong Kong with irrational beliefs are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and stress, a study by the University of Hong Kong has shown. Male students and those coming from low-income families, studying medicine or law or on 5-year programmes are more likely to have irrational beliefs and suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.

A total of 665 Chinese undergraduate students (male, 49.5 percent) from 10 different faculties in a local university were recruited in the cross-sectional study. The Chinese Irrational Beliefs and Rational Attitude Scale (CIBRAS) (encompasses rigid demand, awfulizing beliefs, low frustration tolerance, global evaluation, rational beliefs and total irrational beliefs [TIBs]) and the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS) were used by all students to self-assess their levels of irrational beliefs, rational attitudes, and emotional disturbance (depression, anxiety and stress). Information on socio-demographics and academic study (study major and academic year) was also collected. [J Am Coll Health 2020, doi: 10.1080/07448481.2019.1710516]

Results of the study showed that undergraduate students with higher levels of irrational beliefs and rational attitudes had a significantly increased risk of emotional disturbance (depression, anxiety and stress) (p<0.001).

Within the faculties of engineering and education, second-year students were at significantly increased risk of awfulizing beliefs compared with third-year students (F=1.95; pinteraction<0.05).

Subgroup analyses revealed a statically significant association between level of family income and presence of awfulizing beliefs (F=3.970; p<0.01), where students from low-income families (HKD 10,000) had the highest level of awfulizing beliefs (M=10.5) compared with those whose family income was HKD 10,001. Students with a religion held significantly more rational beliefs (M, 17.6 vs 16.9; t=2.313; p<0.05) than those without.

Male students had a significantly higher level of rational beliefs (M, 11.4 vs 10.9; t=2.308; p<0.05) and a significantly higher risk of depression (M, 5 vs 4.2; t=2.337; p<0.05) than female students.

Among all students in different faculties, medical students were found to have the highest score on low frustration tolerance (M=8.2), while medical and law students had the highest score on awfulizing beliefs (M=10.4). Medical students also had the worst emotional disturbance (total DASS scores, M=17.3), particularly depression (DASS depression scores, M=5.2). Law students scored the highest on rigid demand (M=15.4) and global evaluation (M=12.4), whereas students in the business and economics faculty had the highest level of anxiety (M=5.6).

Students on a 5-year curriculum not only scored the highest in most aspects of the CIBRAS (rigid demand, M=13.5) (awfulizing beliefs, M=9.8) (global evaluation, M=11.9) (rational beliefs, M=17.7), but also had the most emotional disturbance compared with those on 3-, 4- or 6-year programmes (DASS total score, M=16.4) (DASS depression score, M=4.8) (DASS anxiety score, M=5.2) (DASS stress score, M=6.4).

Previous studies revealed higher rates of mental health problems among Chinese vs Western students, and a significant association between irrational beliefs and emotional disturbance among college students in the West. [Psychol Assess 2015;27:68-81; Curr Psychol 2001;20:95-111; Asian Soc Sci 2011;7:137-144; J Cogn Behav Psychother 2011;11:121-142; Health 2010;2:862-877]

“The university’s student affairs and resource centre can identify potential risk factors for students and promote protective measures when facing adversity. Appropriate counselling strategies, educational leaflets and intervention can be devised to identify and dispute irrational beliefs,” suggested the authors.

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