Rise in mental illnesses for college students

A recent study presented to the American Psychological Association revealed that mental illnesses are more common among college students than they were a decade ago.

The study tracked 3,256 students who visited the counseling center at a mid-sized private university between September 1997 and August 2009. The percentage of students diagnosed with mental illness in 1998 was 3 percent higher in 2009.  There was also a large jump in the percentage of students taking psychiatric drugs over that same period. Researchers found that 13 percent more students were taking psychiatric drugs in 2009 than in 1998.

However, David Reitman, associate professor of psychology, said that because of the study’s limitations, there may be hidden inconsistencies in the results.

“We don’t know if things are truly worse for students,” he said. “Or if today’s students are more inclined to recognize psychological disorders.”

Reitman said that any study is worthy of careful review and several similar studies should be investigated to see if they all have the same conclusion.

“It’s possible, in fact,” he said. “That students today are not worse off than they were a decade ago. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but don’t necessarily rely on one study.”

Gene Cash, associate professor of psychology, agrees that one study cannot tell the whole story and this study has limitations.  However, he believes that there are useful generalizations that can be made from the study.

“One thing that is significant is that students are seeking help for mental health problems at a higher rate,” he said. “That may mean that more students have mental health problems or it may mean that there’s less stigma associated with it and they are more willing to admit that. I think it’s probably both.”

Although more students may have mental illnesses, Cash said that there is no need to worry about them.

“Mental illness means a lot of different things,” he said. “And so I don’t think it should inspire fear as much as it should inspire a healthy respect for the need for intervention.”

Tara Jungersen, professor of mental health counseling, said that she believed the more people were educated about mental illnesses, the less stigma they attached to it.

“In all my classes,” she said. “I stress that a person with a mental illness is a person just like anyone.”

Cash said mental illnesses can vary from mild disorders such as having difficulty dealing with stress to life-threatening ones such as psychosis. Students are particularly prone to impulse-control disorders such as substance abuse, gambling, sexual addiction and other repetitive and compulsive behaviors that Cash said can get people into trouble.

Jungersen said that only severe mental illnesses should cause concern. Symptoms of severe mental illness include isolating oneself, giving away possessions, losing touch with reality, having major changes in sleep and eating patterns and increasing pleasure-seeking activities.

“Call the counseling center if you see those symptoms in a friend,” Jungersen said. “Sometimes, just talking to them helps as well.”

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