Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

Jonathan Rottenberg Ph.D.

Charting the Depths

College Campuses: Ground Zero in America's Depression Epidemic

The significance of poor mental health in college students

Posted Jan 27, 2011

On this blog, I have warned about the growing epidemic of severe depression in the USA, pointing to signs that this growing wave of depression is concentrated in the young. The latter development is especially troubling and ominous  because depression that onsets early in life often has a worse course than later onset depression. Depressed college students are likely to become depressed 30 somethings and depressed 40 somethings. Early adulthood is a tender age. Depression that onsets in early adulthood disrupts important developmental milestones like starting a career or starting a family.

If you are skeptical, or think I'm exaggerating, please read this story. It describes the new release of an important survey, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges. The data in the survey indicate that emotional health of college freshmen is at its lowest point since this survey began collecting data 25 years ago. For example, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

You may have a mental image of a sulky freshman facing existential ennui. This is more than that. All indications are that those who endorse poor emotional health will easily meet criteria for one or more mental disorders, most often mood and anxiety disorders. A recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that 44 percent of students who were in counseling have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent in 2000, and 24 percent are on psychiatric medication, up from 17 percent a decade ago. Forty-six percent of college students said they felt "things were hopeless" at least once in the previous 12 months, and nearly a third had been so depressed that it was difficult to function, according to a 2009 survey by the American College Health Association.

No wonder counselors on college campuses are overwhelmed. Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association was quoted in the NY Times story as saying, "This fits with everything we are seeing. More students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today's economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side."

No doubt, college students certainly have it bad, with college debts, poor job prospects, fear of doing worse than parents, and families that are economically stressed, etc, etc. But there is nothing really unique about students. They are just a leading edge of a national problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.

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