Growing numbers of US students reporting mental health problems

Nearly 15 per cent of American undergraduates diagnosed with anxiety, and 12.2 per cent have depression, major study finds

十月 24, 2018
Mental health, brainstorming

US university students are being increasingly diagnosed with mental health problems, with rates of anxiety and depression rising especially fast, an assessment involving nearly 500,000 students has found.

The analysis, published in the Journal of American College Health, was based on survey responses from more than 454,000 undergraduates over seven years.

It found that the proportion of students diagnosed with anxiety increased from 9.3 per cent in 2009 to 14.9 per cent in 2015 – making it the most common mental health concern among US university students.

The proportion of students with depression rose from 9 per cent to 12.2 per cent during the 2009-2015 period, while the share suffering panic attacks increased from 4.5 per cent to 7.3 per cent, the analysis found.

The study’s lead author, Sara Oswalt, professor of health at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that the numbers largely reflect an overstressed culture.

“At the same time,” she said, “higher education institutions need to consider how they may or may not be perpetuating that issue.”

Professor Oswalt suggested that contributing factors on campus could include middle-of-the-night online assignment deadlines and “professors bragging about how little sleep they got in school or are currently getting”.

Such stresses are likely exacerbated by growing numbers of students trying to parent or work while still juggling their classes, she said.

The importance of reducing such pressures for people at traditional university age is, Professor Oswalt added, demonstrated by other studies showing that some 75 per cent of all serious adult psychiatric illnesses begin by the age of 25.

Yet university life is not the only cause. Other research has shown that mental health concerns are growing quickly among even the youngest Americans.

A study this year by the health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield found that 2.6 per cent of Americans aged 12 to 17 were diagnosed with major depression in 2016, a gain of 63 per cent from 2013. And while not at historic highs, suicide rates among US teenagers aged 15 to 19 doubled among girls and rose 31 per cent among boys between 2007 and 2015, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Universities are taking steps to help, with many expanding mental health services, and students are responding. The study led by Professor Oswalt found that almost 20 per cent of the undergraduates surveyed in 2015 reported using their university's mental health services, a 4 per cent increase over the 2009 levels.

More challenging for universities, however, is the need to make deeper changes in culture and role models, Professor Oswalt said. “This of course varies greatly by institution,” she said, “but I think they are questions that institutions need to consider.”

Oswalt’s co-authors on the report represented Tulane University, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University and CUNY Lehman College.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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