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Depression on the Rise in Colleges?

Among College Students, Depression and Use of Psychiatric Medicines Have Increased in the Past 12 Years, Study Finds

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 12, 2010 -- Some mental health problems, including moderate and severe depression, are more common among college students today than in the past, according to a study that looked back 12 years.

But other problems, such as having thoughts of suicide, are less common among today's students, says researcher John Guthman, PhD, director of counseling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

With his colleagues, he looked at the records of 3,256 college students who sought college counseling support between September 1997 and August 2009 at a mid-sized private university. He presented the findings today at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in San Diego.

College Students and Mental Health: The Study

The annual sample included about 250 or 300 students each year who sought college counseling services help, Guthman says. Each student was screened for mental disorders, suicidal thoughts, and self-injurious behavior.

Comparing 2009 to 1997 or 1998, Guthman found:

  • Moderate to severe depression increased. Although 34% of students had moderate to severe depression at the study start, 41% did in 2009.
  • Use of psychiatric medicines for depression, anxiety, and ADHD more than doubled. Although 11% of students in 1998 reported the use of these psychiatric medications, 24% did in 2009.
  • Over time, fewer students reported suicidal thoughts. Although 26% reported suicidal thoughts within two weeks of their counseling visit in 1998, 11% did in 2009.
  • Self-injurious behavior such as cutting oneself rose from 4% to 8%.

College Students and Mental Health: Behind the Findings

Attention to mental health issues on campuses has risen in the wake of campus shooting and suicides, Guthman says.

He credits the decline in students reporting suicidal thoughts to the growing awareness by college and university administrators of the importance of providing mental health services.

"I think colleges and universities are doing a better job of identifying students and educating students about the availability of support and providing outreach and resources such that students may not recognize suicide as a viable option," Guthman tells WebMD.

It's important, too, to note that there's nothing specific about college that may make a student more prone to suicidal thoughts, Guthman says. "Statistically, the incidence of suicide is very rare. In this population, the 18 to 24 age range, students are not statistically at an increased risk when they attend college and university compared to those who are not attending."

College Students and Mental Health: Campus Checks

The study findings are no surprise to Michael Fitzpatrick, MSW, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which hosts campus clubs nationwide to help college students with mental health issues.

''Many campuses have responded positively to provide more mental health services," he says.

He says the rise in moderate to severe depression may reflect the fact that more youth with mental health problems are getting diagnosed earlier and so arrive at college with the diagnosis.

As a result, he says, many colleges have ''ramped up" their mental health services to accommodate those students who have existing needs when they arrive on campus.

For parents and students who are shopping for a college or university, Fitzpatrick suggests asking the following questions, whether the student has a mental health condition upon arrival or not:

  • Does the university offer faculty and staff training on how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness?
  • Does the school have "bridges" to services beyond campus if needed?
  • Are mental health services available 24-7?
  • Is there coordination between mental health care at home and on campus?
  • Are accommodations available for students with mental health problems just as for those with other disabilities?

SOURCES: American Psychological Association annual meeting, San Diego, Aug. 12-15, 2010.

John Guthman, PhD, director of counseling service, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.

Michael Fitzpatrick, MSW, executive director, National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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