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Experts mull trend of mental health issues among students

Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 28, 2011

For many students, exam preparation and writing papers takes up the majority of weekends, and home is just a place to rest between library visits.

The effects of grueling schedules on students’ mental health has become increasingly examined by mental health professionals. However, while depression and anxiety may be a part of students’ daily lives, experts aren’t sure if these conditions have resulted in more mental health issues on college campuses. Measuring the trend is difficult, mental health experts say, due to factors like the reduction in stigma of psychological health problems.

Other confounding factors — such as an increase in the number of students seeking help and easier access to medications — can cause growing awareness of mental health issues to be mistaken for increased occurrence. But many mental health professionals still believe the trend exists.

Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor in the University’s School of Public Health, and Justin Hunt, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas, addressed the issue in a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last January.

In the study, titled “Mental Health Problems and Help-Seeking Behavior Among College Students,” Eisenberg and Hunt report that many who believe in the trend — including researchers, clinicians and policymakers — frequently cite two major national surveys that, on the surface, provide convincing evidence.

The first is a 2008 survey by the International Association of Counseling Services, which was conducted the study of 284 directors of college psychological counseling offices in various states. According to the study, 95 percent of directors said they have seen a significant increase in the number of serious psychological problems on their campuses.

The second study, conducted by the National College Health Association, made an overall assessment of mental health on college campuses. Also from 2008, this study reports that the number of students surveyed who said they had been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives increased from 10 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2008.

Eisenberg said the problem with these statistics is that they don’t take into account the gradual decline in the stigma against mental health.

“In general, I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that the mental health problems are dramatically different than they used to be,” Eisenberg said. “I think that the willingness of students to express them and to seek help — I think that clearly has changed.”

But Todd Sevig, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University, said he believes there is an increasing trend in mental illness among college students.

“I feel in my heart of hearts as a clinician, anecdotally, that there is an increase,” Sevig said.

In an effort to increase awareness of depression in the community, the University's Depression Center is hosting the Depression on College Campuses Conference this week, aimed to determine new ways to combat the perceived increase of depression on campuses, according to the Depression Center's website.

CAPS Associate Director Tim Davis said he finds it hard to believe that mental health problems aren’t on the rise among college students, because he feels the life of a student is more stressful than it was in the past. Davis attributed this to demands not only from classes but also extracurricular activities and stress from summer internships.

Stanley Watson, co-director of the University’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, echoed Davis’s observation.