Mental Health Problems Rising Among College Students

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SAN DIEGO – Cases of severe depression among college students have become more common over the last decade, according to a new study that backs up what mental health professionals at university counseling centers have been saying for years.

Students have also become increasingly impulsive, more often attempt to injure themselves, and more likely to be diagnosed with more than one mental disorder.

The study, conducted at a university campus in the Northeastern United States, aimed to address the perception amongst college counselors that college students nowadays experience more mental illness than in the past. But this may not be the complete picture.

While some findings support this perception, others contradict it. For instance, severe anxiety amongst college students is on the decline, as are thoughts about suicide. And on average, depression and anxiety in this population stayed about the same.

"We all feel like things are getting worse," said John Guthman, director of student counseling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "The data says yes and no." Guthman presented the work here today at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego, Calif.

College life may not be the reason for the rise in severe depression, but rather more students are arriving on campus with pre-existing mental health issues.

"Our findings may suggest that students with severe emotional stress are getting better education, outreach and support during childhood that makes them more likely to attend college than in the past," Guthman told LiveScience. "Years ago they might not have been able to function in other areas of their life if their depression was overwhelming."

His study improves upon previous work in that it didn't just rely on students' own reports of mental health problems, but also used evaluations from university counselors. However, since the findings are based on data from only one college campus, more research is needed to find out whether the results represent a more general trend.

University counseling

Guthman and his colleagues looked at the counseling records of 3,256 undergraduate and graduate students at a private university over a 12-year period, between September 1997 and August 2009.

Participants were examined for mental disorders, their thoughts of suicide and injuring themselves and thoughts of injuring others. The participants took part in interviews and completed two tests to assess their depression and anxiety levels.

Between 1998 and 2009, the number of students coming into counseling who were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder increased 3 percent, from 93 percent to 96 percent.

The percentage diagnosed with moderate to severe depression increased from 34 percent to 41 percent, Guthman said.

In addition to more students arriving with mental problems, the increase in severe depression could be due to more students feeling socially disconnected, Guthman said.

"The students who are seeking help are frequently socially isolated," he said. It could also be because more students are aware of the resources available to help them with mental issues in college, he added.

The number of students who said they attempted to injure themselves also increased for 4 percent to 8 percent over that time period, a trend that has been found on other college campuses.

And the number diagnosed with more than one mental disorder rose from 3 percent to over 40 percent. This rise could have to do with clinicians becoming better at evaluating and diagnosing mental issues among college students, the researchers say. The rise might also reflect an increased willingness of clinicians to provide diagnoses to ensure students receive the appropriate treatment, said study researcher Despina Konstas of Hellenic American University in Athens, Greece.

Over the years, counselors also evaluated students as engaging more in impulsive behaviors, including fighting, drinking and stealing. 

The number of students on psychiatric medicines also increased from 11 percent of students in 1998 to 24 percent in 2009.

Good news

In contrast to depression, cases of severe anxiety showed a drop, especially over the last three years of the study. The phenomenon could indicate students are learning more effectives strategies for dealing with anxiety, Konstas said.

Suicidal thoughts declined by 15 percent, the researchers found. The decrease may result from improvements in suicide prevention education and outreach as well as more awareness of the types of assistance available, Guthman said.

While many university counselors feel things are getting worse, it is important to understand which areas are changing in terms of mental health, Guthman said.

"We need to be sensitive to the data and plan our programs and interventions to address the changes and challenges in college student mental health," Guthman said.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.