SAN DIEGO — Cases of mental illness among college students have become increasingly more serious 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.
But college life might not be the reason for the increase, they say. Part of the rise is likely due to an increase in students coming into college 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," said study researcher John Guthman, director of student counseling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Also, 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. The study was presented here today at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
Guthman and his colleagues looked at the counseling records of 3,256 undergraduate and graduate students at a private university in the northeastern United States 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.
While the level of depression and anxiety among college students remained, on average, the same, the percentage diagnosed with moderate to severe depression increased from 34 percent to 41 percent, Guthman said.
Students are socially disconnected
In addition to more students arriving with mental problems, the increase in severe depression and anxiety could be due to more students feeling socially disconnected, Guthman said. "The students who are seeking help are frequently socially isolated," he said.
During the study period, the number of students on psychiatric medicines also increased. In 1998, 11 percent of the participants were using psychiatric drugs, and this number rose to 24 percent in 2009.
While cases of severe depression were on the rise, the number of students experiencing 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 type of assistance available, Guthman said.
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