When college students return home for winter break, many families are faced with more than the usual college concerns about grades, roommates and homesickness.
According to a study presented at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in 2010, the number of college students affected by a serious mental illness is on the rise.
The study centered on students who sought help through campus counseling services for suicidal thoughts, depression and other mental disorders. It reported that the number of students who were diagnosed as suffering from depression rose from 34% in 1998 to 41% in 2009. Even more significant was the rise in students taking prescription medication for a mental disorder, which rose from 11% to 24% in the same period.
The increase in college students with mental disorders may not be due solely to the pressures of college life. The author of the study, John Guthman of Hofstra University, attributes the rise in mental disorders to an increase in the number of students with pre-existing mental health issues who are now enrolling in college. Students suffering from attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and depression who in the past would have been unable to complete a higher education are now attending college with the help of prescription drugs.
Complicating the matter is the explosion in prescription drug abuse. An example is that many college students are abusing their Adderall – even those students without any legitimate reason to have the drug.
The increase in the number of students with moderate to serious mental health issues is putting a strain on many college and university counseling services. A survey by the American College Counseling Association (ACHC) found that 44% of students who visit campus counseling facilities have severe psychological disorders. This number is up from 16% in 2000. These students have histories that often include trauma, abuse, self-injurious behavior, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. For many college counselors who once dealt with less severe problems like self esteem, identity crises and romantic breakups, the onslaught of students with serious mental health issues is overwhelming.
These recent studies only pertain to students that seek help through campus counseling services. Many students don’t seek help, feeling either too hopeless or attempting to deal with their mental health issues on their own. An ACHC study of 133 recent campus suicides found that only 20 students had sought counseling help on campus.
Compounding the problems caused by the increase in students with mental health issues are ongoing budget cuts and economic pressures that are straining the counseling resources of many colleges and universities.