Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 2, 2020

One in three freshmen has mental health issues

By ISAAC CHEN | September 27, 2018

PUBLIC DOMAIN Many college counseling centers are not large enough to help all students.

In a survey aimed to estimate the prevalence of mental health disorders among incoming first-year college students, 35 percent of the 13,984 respondents reported a history of one or more mental disorders. This study was conducted at 19 colleges across 8 different countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the United States) by the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) project.

David Gunnell, an epidemiologist and public health physician at the University of Bristol, emphasized the importance of this report and pointed out the existence of mental disorders at a young age.

“It’s a really important study. It highlights the high levels of mental health problems among students once they come to university in those different countries,” he said, according to The Guardian. “It’s interesting to note that many of these first-year students were arriving with pre-existing problems.”

While it has been shown that internet-based cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has effects equivalent to face-to-face CBT, little is known about disorders prevalent among college students that require professional intervention and the effectiveness of internet-based CBT on college students. The WMH-ICS project was launched to address this critical issue.

Randy P. Auerbach is the lead author of this study. Currently, he is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University with research focused on identifying various factors that render children, adolescents and young adults vulnerable to depression.

He comments on why students may have a hard time getting counseling from their universities.

“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,” Auerbach said, according to a press release from the American Psychological Association (APA). “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.”

Internet-based CBT is also advantageous due to its low-cost and ease of implementation. This method of therapy can further address difficult barriers like stigma and inconvenience.

The research team identified that 21.2 percent of the surveyed incoming college students reported experiencing major depressive disorder (MDD) at least once in their lifetime. This was the most common disorder among all the examined countries. Following MDD is generalized anxiety disorder with a lifetime prevalence rate of 18.6 percent.

Furthermore, Auerbach highlights the economic significance of students and urges colleges to be more active in offering more resources.

“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,” he said.

While effective support for each student is important, this does not mean students who need care beyond the limited resources counseling centers can offer should be excluded.

“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,” Auerbach said.

In regard to sociodemographic background, the researchers found that students with unmarried parents or a parent who passed away are more susceptible to mental disorders. Students who identified as having no religious affiliation had elevated odds of mental disorders as opposed to those identified as Christian.

A previous forerunner study to the WMH-ICS survey had obtained data that later identified first-year students with persistent suicidal thoughts during subsequent years. 

The researchers of this study ultimately want to predict a range of key outcomes that can be intervened with a survey.

“Our long-term goal is to develop predictive models to determine which students will respond to different types of interventions,” Auerbach said. “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.”

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