Severe Mental Illness Among American College Students Growing

Aug 13th, 2010 | By healthnews | Category: Health

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Main Category: Psychology / Psychiatry
Also Included In: Mental Health;  Anxiety / Stress;  Depression
Article Date: 13 Aug 2010 – 11:00 PDT

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As more young people arrive on campus with pre-existing conditions and a willingness to seek medical help, the incidence and prevalence of severe mental illness among college students in the USA has increased significantly over the past ten years. Details of a study were presented at the 118th American Psychological Association Annual Convention in San Diego by John Guthman, PhD.

John Guthman, PhD, author of the study and director of student counseling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, said:

In the last 10 years, a shift in the needs of students seeking counseling services is becoming apparent. University and college counseling services around the country are reporting that the needs of students seeking services are escalating toward more severe psychological problems. While the condition of students seeking counseling doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience of the average college student, 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 and team examined the records of 3,256 college students, both undergraduates and graduates, who accessed college counseling support between September 1997 and August 2009 at a mid-sized private university. They were screened for mental disorders, suicidal thoughts, and self-injurious behavior. A variety of tools were utilized to make diagnoses, including clinical evaluations, structured interviews, and two widely used tests of mood — the Beck Depression Inventory and the Beck Anxiety Inventory.

Guthman wrote that:

  • 93% of students coming into the clinic were diagnosed with one mental disorder in 1998
  • 96% of students coming into the clinic were diagnosed with one mental disorder in 2009

96% of students in 2009 who sought treatment met criteria for diagnosis with one or more mental disorder(s). The majority of them were diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders, or problems linked to significant impairment in functioning. The researchers did not detect any significant class or age differences.

Guthman said:

Overall, the average quality of depression and anxiety experienced by students in counseling has remained constant and relatively mild during the last decade. (However, the percentage of students with moderate to severe depression has gone up from 34 to 41 percent) These outliers often require significantly more resources and may contribute greatly to the misperception that the average student is in distress.

Guthman suggests that the increase in severe cases of anxiety and depression in college students may be because more of them are coming in with pre-existing mental health conditions/difficulties.
Guthman said:

There are also more students who are not socially connected. The average college student is not having this problem, but the students who are seeking help are frequently socially isolated, depressed and may be on medication.

The authors revealed that in 1998, 11% of the clinical sample reported using psychiatric medications, mostly for depression, anxiety and ADHD. In 2009, 24% of individuals attending counseling reported using psychiatric medications.

Encouragingly, the number of students who admitted having suicidal thoughts within two weeks of counseling intake dropped from 26% in 1998 to 11% in 2009. This fall may reflect general improvements in suicide prevention education and outreach and greater awareness of available assistance, Guthman said.

Guthman added:

It used to be that students would come to university counseling centers because they broke up with their partner or failed a test. Now, they are coming with emotional distress and requesting mental health treatment for the same reasons that other adult populations seeks out treatment.

118th American Psychological Association Annual Convention in San Diego:

    Paper session:
    Increase in Severity of Mental Illness Among Clinical College Students: A 12-Year Comparison
    John C. Guthman, PhD, and Laura Iocin, PhD, Hofstra University; Despina D. Konstas, PhD, Hellenic American University, Athens, Greece

    Session 1019:8-9:50 a.m., Thursday, August 12
    San Diego Convention Center, Upper level, Room 24B

Source: American Psychological Association

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