The University Network

You’re Not Alone: Mental Illness Is Widespread At Universities

The mental health of college students, worldwide, is at risk.

Thirty-five percent of freshmen in a new study carried out by the American Psychological Association (APA) reported having symptoms of a mental health disorder, including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

The researchers analyzed data involving nearly 14,000 students from 19 colleges in eight countries — Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the United States — who participated in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative.

They found major depressive disorder to be the most common symptom, followed by generalized anxiety disorder.

It’s not just freshmen who are at risk.

In a separate study, involving more than 67,000 college students from across more than 100 institutions, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) found high rates for stressful life events, mental health diagnoses and the risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts among all students surveyed.

In the BWH study, 75 percent of students encountered at least one stressful life event in the prior year, while over 20 percent battled with six or more stressful life events.

Stressful events were defined as ones that students found traumatic or difficult to handle, including academics, career-related issues, death of a family member or friend, family problems, intimate relationships, other social relationships, finances, health problem of family member or partner, personal appearance, personal health issue and sleep difficulties. These factors could lead to mental health diagnoses, self-harm and suicidality.

Twenty-five percent of the students were diagnosed with, or treated for, a mental health disorder in the prior year.

Twenty percent had contemplated suicide with 9 percent having attempted suicide and nearly 20 percent had harmed themselves.

Another recent study showed that depression and anxiety ran high among graduate students.

In this study, a research team from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, surveyed 2,279 graduate students by way of social media and direct email.

They found 41 percent of graduate students had moderate to severe anxiety while 39 percent had moderate to severe depression.

The rate of both anxiety and depression was higher for female graduate students than their male counterparts: 43 percent versus 34 percent in terms of anxiety, and 41 percent versus 35 percent in terms of depression.

The rate of anxiety and depression was also higher for transgender/gender-nonconforming graduate students — 55 percent had anxiety and 57 percent had depression.

“There is a growing cry for help from graduate students across the globe who struggle with significant mental health concerns,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

So, what can be done for students who need help?

Ways to help at-risk students

“Colleges and family members who are sending students off to college need to remember that this is a phase of life where young people are confronted with expectations from new relationships and living situations and other encounters that are stressful,” Cindy Liu of the Departments of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and Psychiatry at BWH and lead researcher of the BWH study, said in a statement.

“Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends, and colleges to provide support.”

Many universities like the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have programs in place to help at-risk students.

In 2015, UCLA, which has almost 45,000 students from diverse backgrounds, launched the Depression Grand Challenge in an effort to develop better methods of detecting, evaluating and treating depression.

In September 2017, UCLA offered free voluntary mental health screening to incoming students and counseling for those found to be at-risk.

The screening is just a first step for UCLA, whose researchers plan on developing innovative treatment options that would enable healthcare professionals to intervene immediately, rather than wait for at-risk students to seek help.

The University of Southern California has a guide to depression and anxiety for college students on their website as well as a list of helpful resources.

At the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR), Andrew Petzold, an assistant professor in UMR’s Center for Learning Innovation, launched the “Exam Roulette” when he learned his students were experiencing feelings of anxiety and unpreparedness before long-form essay exams.

Students can also engage various strategies, such as mindful movement and identity-based motivation, which have been found to be helpful in reducing depression and stress.

But, still more needs to be done to secure the mental health of college students, worldwide.

“While effective care is important, the number of students who need treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment among college students,” Randy P. Auerbach, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University and lead researcher of the APA study on freshmen students, said in a statement.

“Considering that students are a key population for determining the economic success of a country, colleges must take a greater urgency in addressing this issue.”

Patrick Shrout, a professor of psychology at New York University, has a suggestion based on his team’s recent study on college roommates’ sensitivity to each other’s distress.

“Because roommates are often strangers when the students start a school year, the schools might not have known that they would be accurate sources of information about each other’s distress,” he said. “Our findings alert school counselors that there is information that can be gathered from roommates.”

Shrout and his team hope that school counseling services will take note of their findings and try to develop a training program for roommates.

Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.