University mental health agencies have scrambled in the last several years to provide treatment to a rising number of students seeking psychiatric treatment. Studies from across the country have shown a sharp increase in reports of stress and depression among college students.
Todd Sevig, the director of the University’s office of Counseling and Psychological Services, said the percentage of students seeking help from CAPS has increased in recent years, including by 13 percent from 2006 to 2007.
According to the National College Health Assessment, which surveyed almost 95,000 college students across the country last fall, 42.3 percent of participants reported feeling so depressed last year that it was difficult to function; 9.4 percent seriously contemplated committing suicide.
The University’s mental health agencies have hired additional staffers and rolled out new initiatives aimed at maintaining a healthy campus, all the while asking themselves a question: Why are today’s students so stressed and depressed?
Rachel Glick, the director of adult psychiatry for the University’s Psychiatric Emergency Service, a mental health service based at the University Hospital, said she can’t explain the rise in the rate of depression among college students.
“When we just look at statistics and think about why there are so many more students being diagnosed with mental illness now than in the past, we don’t know why,” Glick said.
Campus psychologists say there are likely multiple reasons for the increase in demand for psychiatric services.
“Part of the reason is stigma is disappearing,” said Robert Winfield, director of the University Health Service. “People are less ashamed and are more willing to come in for help.”
Winfield said CAPS and the University’s long-term counseling facilities have struggled to meet the increased demand and have hired new employees to accommodate the workload.
Glick, who co-chaired a task force that looked at mental health issues on college campuses, suggested that a more stressful world could be creating a generation of students under mental duress. She said living in a world where technology allows students instant access to information could be contributing to mental illness in young people.
Sevig, though, said he views technology as something to promote mental health, not detract from it. He said the increase in the number of students seeking mental health treatment can be attributed in part to this generation’s relative “comfort with the idea of mental health.” That could be because students can use the Internet to obtain more information, he said.
Previously, this information was usually obtained from professionals during an office visit, which could dissuade some from seeking help, Sevig said. He said he thinks the whole climate of mental health outreach has changed drastically in the past few decades.
“Twenty years ago, counselors would sit in their offices and wait for students to come to them,” he said.
Christine Asidao, assistant director of outreach and education at CAPS, said a large part of the outreach process is ensuring that students know the warning signs for mental illness and have the tools to effectively handle psychological distress.
Sevig said CAPS is working on an initiative to “blanket the campus” with resources. Last November, CAPS launched an initiative called “QPR,” short for “Question, Persuade, Refer,” to encourage students to question their friends who may be in need of help, persuade them to seek help and refer them to professionals in the University’s Health System who can help.
“It’s like CPR,” Sevig said. “It’s for people who aren’t mental health professionals to do something.”
Although CAPS sometimes gets a bad rap because of the long waiting periods between sessions, Winfield said the University has sufficient mental health resources to accommodate everyone who needs them.
Many of those resources are at lesser-known centers. Winfield said students often come to UHS with issues the general care physicians aren’t prepared to diagnose or treat. In these cases, they will be referred to the on-site psychiatrist, to CAPS or to long-term clinics like the Psychology Clinic, the University of Michigan Health System Depression Center or other mental health providers throughout the Ann Arbor area. This is particularly true when students request prescription medication, Winfield said.
Winfield said medications could be responsible for the recent increase in demand for mental health treatment. Many students who would not have been prescribed medication before the pharmaceutical boom might not have been able to attend college, he said. Now because those students are being diagnosed and treated for psychological issues like depression and anxiety at earlier ages, they’re able to make it to the University.
While some may be inclined to attribute the seemingly neurotic behavior of students to some of the finer points of being in college – keg parties, all-nighters and a newfound sense of independence – Glick said the diagnoses go beyond the unique challenges of college life.
“Yes, universities are stressful, and yes, there’s a lot of substance use, but there are clearly defined criteria that professionals use to diagnose patients,” Glick said. “There is a difference between someone who is really stressed out on a given day and someone who really needs help.”
– Elaine LaFay contributed to this report.
Depression by the numbers
42.3 percent of students last fall who felt “so depressed that year that it (was) difficult to function”
9.4 percent of students last fall who reported “seriously considering suicide”
13 percent increase in students seeking help from CAPS, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, since last year