Under the Hood

1 In 3 College Freshmen Face Mental Health Struggles

More than a third of students in their first year of college report symptoms consistent with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. The findings come from a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative which surveyed students from around the world.

The study titled "WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and Distribution of Mental Disorders" was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology on Sept. 13.

"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 Dr. Randy Auerbach of Columbia University. 

Reports have estimated the average university to have one professional counselor for every 1,737 students while recommendations by the International Association of Counseling Services encourage a ratio of one counselor per 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Thus, there is a need for colleges around the world to take a "greater urgency" in addressing the issue, Auerbach said. He also noted how the importance extends beyond the level of the individual since students are a key population for determining the economic success of a country.

The research team examined data on nearly 14,000 students from 19 colleges located in the following countries — Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and the United States. The participants answered questions which helped assess their mental health by identifying symptoms of depression, mania, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, etc.

According to the findings, symptoms of at least one of these conditions were found in 35 percent of college freshmen. Furthermore, major depressive disorder was found to be the most prevalent one though many students were also affected by anxiety disorders.

The average age of onset for mental health disorders is considered to be adolescence or the early 20s, according to Johanna Jarcho, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. While the disorders were broadly distributed across participants, there appeared to be a slightly higher prevalence among female students, older students, and sexual minorities.

Auerbach, who studies depression and suicide, noted how the transition from high school to college or university can be really challenging during this period, leading to increased levels of stress. The next step in research was to find out what type of intervention work best for various kinds of disorders. While internet interventions may be effective for certain groups, others may need treatment in person.

"Our long-term goal is to develop predictive models to determine which students will respond to different types of interventions," he 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."