Purpose: Emotional distress, which includes stress, anxiety and depression, is considered a substantial mental health problem among university students because of its effects on academic achievement and well-being. The purpose of this paper is to examine levels of emotional distress, self-esteem, social support and coping methods and predicted emotional distress in undergraduate students across year levels in two semesters. Design/methodology/approach: A cross-sectional study was conducted in a regional university with 117 and 118 students, respectively, the majority of whom were from the Faculty of Science. Announcements posted on the university website in two semesters were used to recruit convenience samples of participants who completed a battery of four self-administered questionnaires online. Findings: Findings showed significant differences across year levels for emotional distress total (F(2, 107)=3.90, p=0.02), and social support total (F(2, 107)=3.57, p=0.03), especially in semester 1. Almost all maladaptive coping approaches led to risk of heightened emotional distress in both semester cohorts, ranging from using self-distraction (adjusted OR=4.54) to denial (adjusted OR=32.05). Interestingly, the use of active coping and high self-esteem appeared as risk factors rather than protective factors for mental distress, adjusted ORs=11.27 and 8.46, respectively. Originality/value: Although adaptive coping skills did not alleviate students’ mental distress, encouraging students to use adaptive coping and social support may help students face the challenges of university life.