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Experts mull trend of mental health issues among students

BY SUZANNE JACOBS
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.

“I think the pressure that I felt going to college and kind of getting organized — it’s a lot of stress, but I don’t think anybody in my class came away nearly as disrupted as the kids in my son’s class or my daughter’s,” Watson said.

CAPS Associate Director Victoria Hays, said she thinks the economy is another major stress on students today. She compared the stress to the months after the Sept. 11 attacks when she said there was a notable increase in students using CAPS because of “changes in the sense of safety in the world.”

The 1992 National Comorbidity Survey found 25 percent of people diagnosed with mental disorders had received treatment the previous year, which was an increase from the 19 percent reported seven years earlier. The same survey in 2002 found that the number of people who sought treatment had jumped to 41 percent.

Sevig said it was rare for older people to seek mental health services because “it just wasn’t part of that generation’s lifestyle.” Now, research shows that stigma of mental health is decreasing among college students, encouraging more of them to seek help, he added.

“This is the first generation … of college students that received services as children and adolescents in large numbers,” Sevig said. “It’s the first generation of students where their parents have received services.”

The CAPS 2009-2010 annual report revealed that during the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years, 3,127 and 3,362 students, respectively, used CAPS clinical services. The addition of more staff members and increased funding is partly responsible for the rise, Sevig said.

LSA senior Caitlin Pollock said there seems to be more awareness about mental health issues compared to when her parents were in college.

“They’ll say they probably had friends or knew people that were depressed, but they would never know what it was,” Pollack said.

LSA sophomore Vishesha Patel said she thinks this generation of college students is under a lot of pressure to be successful and “become something.” She said she thinks it’s harder now than it was for her parents, who only had a few options for what to do with their lives.

“Now we have so many choices, and it’s hard to decide (what career to pursue),” Patel said. “It’s stressful. It’s a pretty big campus, you have to compete a lot to be the best.”

One study published in 2009 in Clinical Psychology Review tried to pinpoint the root cause of the trend of mental health problems among college students while accounting for reduced stigma.

To compare the levels of mental illness between generations, the study looked at scores from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory — which measures levels of psychological ailments like depression paranoia, schizophrenia, hypomania and hysteria — from the 1930s to 2007.

The controls they used to account for reduced stigma measured respondents’ tendency toward “socially desirable and defensive responding.” Even with these controls, the researchers found that mental illness did rise from one generation to the next.

The researchers concluded that the trend did not correlate with economic cycles, ruling the economy out as a possible cause. They ultimately concluded that the most likely source of the trend was a cultural shift in priorities from intrinsic goals — such as getting involved in community groups, making close friends and developing a “meaningful philosophy of life” — to extrinsic goals characterized by “materialism, individualism, unrealistic expectations and unstable relationships.” These extrinsic goals, the researchers argue, contribute to more cases of mental distress.

While the study took into account reduced stigma, the researchers acknowledged that it didn’t deal with the possibility that psychopathologic symptoms are becoming socially acceptable. The study also recognized that it didn’t account for the fact that more students with ailments like depression and anxiety now attend college due to more prescription use.

Rachel Glick, the associate chair for clinical and administrative affairs in the University’s Department of Psychiatry, said before the advent of Prozac in the 1980s, anti-depressants had more serious side effects and required careful dosing, so doctors had to monitor their patients more closely. Now, family practitioners and other specialty doctors feel comfortable prescribing the drugs because they’re simple, once-a-day medications, she said.

Glick added that an increased use of anti-depressants and other drugs means more people with debilitating mental health issues, who wouldn’t be able to attend college otherwise, now go on to pursue higher education if they’re on medications that help them function.


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