Tuition Fees and Mental Health

Do hikes in tuition lead to mental issues?

Posted Mar 23, 2016

Source: Freepik

     According to a recent article in the Guardian, a major hike in tuition fees at English universities coincided with a surge in students seeking mental health counseling for anxiety and depression

     Does this relationship help explain the ever-increasing mental health demands at American universities?  But before looking at the numbers, let’s consider this question more fully.  If true, this would suggest that the number of those seeking mental health counseling at high-ticketed private universities would be greater than those at state universities.  Yet, more parents may pay for tuition costs at the high-ticketed universities, thereby taking pressure off the student.  Or, conversely, it could add pressure by keeping the student obligated to excel, and even worse keep the student dependent upon one’s parents, thereby preventing emotional growth. 

     For those students who must incur personal debt, whether at a high-ticketed university or a state university, the pressure to succeed is relentless.  But, is this excessive pressure responsible for the increased number of students seeking mental health counseling for anxiety and depression?  This pressure could easily lead to excessive anxiety, but the anxiety would be more situational than the long-term anxiety which often culminates in depression.  Could there be another reason for the surge in mental health counseling other than increased tuition fees?

     Since the year 2000, the American College Health Association (ACHA) has issued semi-annual self-reports on the state of student health, including mental health.  In the initial year, ACHA reported 40.6% females and 33.7% males stated they felt so depressed over the previous year that it was difficult to function.  The number slightly decreased with the 2008 report (39.0% females, 31.6 males).  The reporting criteria changed slightly for 2009, with females 33.0% and males 26.6%.  The 2015 report found females 36.6% and males 29.8%.  The conclusion from these numbers is that there has not been a significant increase in self-reported depression over the past 15 years.

     ACHA began reporting students feeling overwhelming anger during the previous year in 2009, with females 39.9% and males 35.7%.  No significant change was reported in 2015 (females 39.7%, males 34.3%).                    

     In spite of increased tuition fees at both private and public universities over the last 15 years, there is no evidence that this resulted in an increase in self-reported feelings of overwhelming depression or anger.      

      There was no increase of students reporting to have seriously considered attempted suicide during the previous year from 2000 to 2008 (females 9.0% to 8.5% and males 7.5% to 7.5%).  From 2009 to 2015, with slightly changed criteria, there appeared a significant increase (females 5.9% to 9.0%, males 5.9% to 8.3%).  Yet, over the 15 years, it would be difficult to substantiate any significant increase (females 9.0% to 9.0%, males 7.5% to 8.3%). 

      ACHA did not report on student’s overwhelming feelings of anxiety until 2008, with females 53.6% and males 38.6%.  A significant increase appears in 2015, with females 62.3% and males 45.4%.  Even if primarily situational, such an increase over just 7 years has yet to be explained. 

     One possible explanation was a significant drop in the stigma barrier among a new generation of college students during the last seven years.  These students are simply more liberated from the shame of seeking mental health counseling than their predecessors.  This may be the result of the major public relations efforts during the last decade to overcome this stigma, and it appears to have been successful among young adults.

     The problem, however, is that although university mental health centers can assist students with situational anxiety, these centers are ill-equipped to provide much help with long-term depression, bipolar, and suicidality.  These mental issues are rooted somewhere in the student’s past, far removed from today’s increased tuition fees. 


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