College Students Mental Health Worsens

2 university linked psychiatry professors have authored an article, published in Psychiatric Times, The Crisis in College and University Mental Health, about yearly surveys of college students undertaken by the American College Health Association. Almost 95,000 students answered last year’s survey. Among the results of these surveys were the following.

What have these reports shown? There are currently approximately 17.5 million university students in the United States. Gallagher reported that in 2006, 8.5% of students sought counseling through their school service; another 29% were seen by college-based counselors in other settings. Voelker noted that visits to university counseling centers rose 42% between 1992 and 2002 at 11 large Midwestern universities.

For the past 10 years, Gallagher has consistently reported that about 90% of counseling center directors believe they are treating increasing numbers of students with severe pathology. In 1994, 9% of students seen at counseling centers were taking psychiatric medications. By 2006, this number had risen to 23.3%, and 7.5% of students had such serious impairments that they could not function in college settings or without extensive psychiatric/psychological support.

Students’ self-reports seem no more reassuring. According to the most recent American College Health Association survey, about 13% of students reported having symptoms of anxiety, and more than 18% reported depression symptoms. Almost 15% had received a diagnosis of depression sometime in their lives; 25% reported problems with their studies as a result of sleep problems; 33% acknowledged stress-related problems; 43% said they felt so depressed at some point in the academic year that it was difficult to function; 10% had seriously considered suicide; and 1.9% had attempted suicide.

The Tragedy at Virginia Tech and other high profile school shootings, coupled with mental health screening, have helped fuel this counseling frenzy. I have a relative with a job in college counseling, and she reports that despite many staff cutbacks on campus, one area of professional expertise where staff is not being cutback is in the field of mental health counseling.

I think one thing that is missing from this equation is an understanding that this kind of attention has a way of feeding itself. What I mean to suggest is that where the authors, Dr. Victor Schwartz and Dr. Jerald Kay, see a growing problem, they don’t see how they contribute to this problem, and its growth.

The good news is that, as in the Missouri studies showing that many bipolar cases dissipate before the age of 30 years, perhaps many of these young students will get over their initial difficulties. Let’s hope so anyway. I dread to think of all the mental health professionals and paraprofessionals, concealing a psychiatric history, this epidemic could spawn as a result.