A third of students show signs of mental health distress

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A third of students show signs of mental health distress

More than a third of first-year college students show signs of mental health distress, according to an international study by the World Health Organization (WHO).  

To conduct the study, WHO surveyed 13,984 students across 19 colleges in eight countries—Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and the United States—during their first months of college. The online survey was administered to examine the prevalence of major depression, anxiety disorders, mania, panic disorders, and substance use among first-year college students.


of students surveyed by WHO reported experiencing at least one mental health disorder at some point in life
of students surveyed by WHO reported experiencing at least one mental health disorder at some point in life


of students reported experiencing at least one mental health disorder in the last year

The researchers found that 35% of students reported having experienced at least one of the aforementioned mental health disorders at some point in life. And 31% reported having experienced one of these disorders within the last 12 months.

The researchers note that major depression was the most common, followed by anxiety. And the average age of onset for these disorders in students was just 14.

“The transition from high school or secondary school to college or university can be really challenging,” explains Randy Auerbach, one of the study’s lead authors. Still, “the rates of the disorders are alarmingly high,” he adds, noting that the findings suggest “an enormous public health problem.”

But Auerbach offers a possible solution in the form of innovative counseling strategies. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), just 15% to 20% of students seek counseling, despite the prevalence of mental health distress on campus. Auerbach adds that college counseling centers are “currently working at capacity and counseling centers tend to be cyclical, with students ramping up service use towards the middle of the semester, which often creates a bottleneck.”

Auerbach suggests colleges use internet-based counseling to widen access to students inclined to opt out of in-person treatment. Virtual counseling may provide students with “more immediate access to care and in a way that is scalable, relatively inexpensive and can work around their schedule, addressing some concerns that they may have around stigma,” he says.

One example of virtual counseling is Colorado State University‘s (CSU) “YOU@CSU” website, which allows students to access services and communicate with a virtual counselor immediately at any time. CSU’s online services also give students customized support; students answer a series of questions evaluating their mental and physical health, then receive a recommendation for a campus resource. And everything is anonymous. “It’s now about how you support students with a whole range of concerns,” says Anne Hudgens, executive director of the CSU Health Network (De Lorenzo, Bustle, 9/14/18; Lacchia, The Guardian, 9/13/18; New, Inside Higher Ed, 10/19/16).

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