Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kurdi found that students were under the most strain during and before their exams. Their heart rates then showed signs of returning to normal once the test was over.
“We compared students by their year of study because we thought the students might adapt to the stress,” he says.
But the results didn’t show that.
Regardless of their year of study, the students suffered a similar amount of stress. That suggests that they aren’t learning coping mechanisms, says Kurdi. “Stress is still stress, and that doesn’t seem to change as students progress through their studies.”
The study also had a self-assessment component. Kurdi asked students to estimate whether they felt physically stressed or not. Those who said they didn’t feel tense were a bad judge of their own state because they showed levels of stress, as measured by heart-rate variability, similar to those of individuals who admitted to feeling uncomfortably pressured.
“Students really weren’t good at telling if they were stressed or not,” says Kurdi. That highlights the need for people to be more aware of themselves in stressful experiences and not assume that they’re OK—they shouldn’t ignore the possibility of stress, he says. “It shows they all need to think carefully about how to help themselves.”
Depression and Medical Students
A second survey-based study looked at the rate of depression among 340 medical students at the Lebanese University and also asked questions about their Facebook use.
“Stress is linked to depression,” says Ramzi Haddad, a study author and professor in the Lebanese University’s department of psychiatry. “Medical studies are extremely stressful and depression among medical students is not rare. That’s why we looked at medical students.”
Haddad and his colleagues used a well-known academic survey to estimate how depressed a participant might be. The survey does not provide a full diagnosis, but it gives enough detail for research purposes. The survey asks participants how many days a week they experience certain scenarios such as a lack of appetite, trouble concentrating, or thoughts of suicide and self-harm.
Based on participants’ answers, the survey places them into one of five groups, ranging from no signs of depression up to scores suggesting severe depression. Close to 35 percent of the students were ranked as showing between mild to severe signs of depression. (See a related article, “Study to Map Mental-Health Needs of Lebanese Youth.”)
The same students completed a second survey that asked about how often they use Facebook.
“The results show depression and Facebook use are correlated,” says Haddad. “That’s not to say Facebook is causing this trend, it’s just an association.”
While many people have long theorized that social media triggers depression by causing a fear of missing out, the evidence is spotty. Haddad says Facebook could in fact be a positive force for those at risk of depression.
Depressed people often shun face-to-face interactions, so Facebook could be one of the only means by which they’re getting any sort of social interaction, he explains. “That doesn’t mean Facebook is a treatment—that’s not at all what I’m saying. But maybe it’s better than a total absence. Essentially, it’s better than nothing, which is sometimes the alternative.”
That’s one way, says Haddad, to explain the statistically significant association between Facebook use and risk of depression.
His colleagues agree.
“It’s still a problem if people are only communicating via social media, but at least it’s something,” says Wadih Naja, a professor of psychiatry at the Lebanese University who collaborated with Haddad on the study.
Additionally, Naja says the study’s findings suggest that Facebook could be used to actively help people with mental health needs. If mental healthcare experts know that depressed people are more likely to use Facebook than people who aren’t depressed, then they know Facebook is one platform to reach them on, he says. (See a related article, “Social Media Can Fight the Arab Health Crisis.”)
“It’s a good place to run awareness campaigns, send key messaging and publish articles,” he says. “To make people more aware of the help that exists and encourage them to seek it.”