More than one-third of college freshman show signs of mental illness
More than one-third of college freshman in eight countries show signs of diagnosable mental health issues, according to a recent large-scale study organized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The findings published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology came from a survey given to nearly 14,000 students from 19 universities as part of WHO’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, which included questions designed to screen for common mental health issues, including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.
“While effective care is important, the number of students who need treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment among college students,” said lead author Randy P. Auerbach, Ph.D., from Columbia University.
“Considering that students are a key population for determining the economic success of a country, colleges must take a greater urgency in addressing this issue.”
The study included colleges in eight countries: Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and the United States.
According to the questionnaire responses, approximately 35% of college students experience symptoms characteristic of at least one mental health disorder based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition.
The most common disorder among the participants was major depressive disorder, followed by generalized anxiety disorder.
“The finding that one-third of students from multiple countries screened positive for at least one of six mental health disorders represents a key global mental health issue,” said Auerbach.
As the researchers explain, the biggest takeaway from the study is the need for more counseling and therapy resources for students. Past research has shown that between 15% and 20% of students will seek services at their college’s counseling centers and there is strong evidence these organizations are overtaxed as is.
One potential solution to this problem may be Internet resources such as online CBT courses, according to Auerbach.
“University systems are currently working at capacity and counseling centers tend to be cyclical, with students ramping up service use toward the middle of the semester, which often creates a bottleneck,” said Auerbach. “Internet-based clinical tools may be helpful in providing treatment to students who are less inclined to pursue services on campus or are waiting to be seen.”
The group also suggests that research may be able to identify the types of disorders which may be most effectively treated remotely, which would allow more resources for conditions which require more intensive treatment. For example, online CBT courses appear to be highly effective for those with depression and anxiety, while substance abuse or eating disorders typically necessitate in-person treatment.
“Our long-term goal is to develop predictive models to determine which students will respond to different types of interventions,” said Auerbach.
“It is incumbent on us to think of innovative ways to reduce stigma and increase access to tools that may help students better manage stress.”