The bad news: Mental health conditions are burdening many at our universities. The good news: More students are seeking treatment.
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Numerous studies have focused on the stress and mental health challenges that U.S. college students today face, and researchers warn things may only be getting worse. New research from the American College Health Association (ACHA) shows that students are showing increased signs of mental illness and conditions in recent years, particularly when it comes to anxiety.
Turning to a dataset collected by the ACHA, the research team analyzed more than 450,000 records from undergraduate students across the country to find changes in mental health diagnoses and subsequent treatment in university students between 2009 and 2015. The study’s authors found significant increases in eight of the 12 mental health conditions they studied, with the biggest increases in those diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
Diagnosis and treatment of anxiety rose among American college students by 5.6 percent, followed by depression (3.2%), and panic attacks (2.8%). Anxiety is now the most common mental health condition for American university students, affecting 15 percent of our student bodies overall.
The researchers hypothesized that the increase comes as the result of deteriorating mental health among students, along with an increased willingness to report any issues they’re dealing with. That willingness may come from greater awareness of services offered to students on campuses — nearly a fifth of students have taken advantage of these services — compounded by a weakened negative stigma attached to mental health issues. That finding alone is up 4 percent from the beginning of the study period.
“We don’t know that the college environment is causing or even contributing to the increase in these conditions, but campuses are going to have to address it,” says lead author Dr. Sara Oswalt, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, in a statement. “Higher education institutions want students to be successful in college, but if mental health issues aren’t adequately addressed, it will make student success more difficult to achieve.”
The authors say universities play a major role in helping combat mental health conditions. They point to research showing 75 percent of all serious psychiatric illnesses in adults start by age 25. Oswalt maps out how college administrations can be more proactive.
“Universities should first examine the overall culture surrounding mental health on their campus. If the overall culture is not one that promotes health, that will need to be considered before step two, which is providing support for prevention in a variety of areas,” she explains. “This may include sleep instruction, stress reduction, and exercise. Step three needs to be adequately staffing counselling and health centers so those in need of services can be seen. If institutions don’t have counselling services, then partnering or identifying community resources is critical to supporting their students.”
The full study was published October 25, 2018 in the Journal of American College Health.