Mental illness in college students

According to a survey report published in October named College Students Speak, released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64 percent of students who have withdrawn from college within the last five years cited a mental health related issue. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents cited medications are a critical service and support to their success in college. While some see these statistics as evidence of an epidemic among college students, there are also those that contend that these statistics are indicative of the prevalence of over diagnosing and the over reliance of healthcare providers on psychiatric medications to remedy the stresses of college life.

According to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, “The typical bachelor’s degree recipient can expect to earn about 61 percent more over a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate earns over the same period.” Just a few years ago, middle- level managers at UPS could be hired with minimal credentials that could make up for a lack of higher education with real world experience. Company policies have changed and where a diploma was once a bonus, it is now a requirement. Corporations are placing more emphasis on a college diploma; this leads to more pressures on college students to complete their coursework.

These pressures lead students to seek a way to maintain an independent lifestyle while still keeping up with their classes. According to the Psychiatric Times, “The rate of severe psychiatric disorder among those seen in school counseling services used to be 16 percent– now it has reached 44 percent. Ten years ago, 17 percent received psychiatric medicine– now it is 24 percent.” A study by John Guthman examined the records of 3,256 college students who accessed college counseling support between September 1997 and August 2009 at a mid-sized private university. The data show that in 1998, 93 percent of the students coming into the clinic were diagnosed with one mental disorder. The number rose to 96 percent in 2009. Most students were diagnosed with “mood and anxiety disorders as well as adjustment disorders or problems associated with significant impairment in functioning,” according to the Science News

Many students face difficulty in the transition from high school to college life. The absence of the support of high school structure often leaves them unsure of how to handle the burdens of independence while facing what many consider to be one of the most trying phases of their lives. With overburdened student health advisors and the increasing availability of prescription drugs, students often turn to the quickest fix to their academic and social woes.

Senior English major Carina Lukasch asserted, “Generational feelings equate to students needing to feel better now. We don’t know what it’s like to take the time to see things go through we feel like we don’t have  enough time.” Lukasch added, “If they (prescription drugs) are used the right way, they can be useful but they need to be paired with things like therapy because when someone is just relying on a pill, the symptom is all that is addressed. Insurance companies also want to see results now and that is only reinforcing the flawed rationale of applying these pills to fix students with so many varying issues.”

According to a survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, 69.2 percent of students spent more than five hours a week socializing with friends and 48.9 percent of students participated in intramural sports since they entered college. Not surprisingly, the survey also noted, “Despite being socially engaged, students have a variety of responsibilities in college that can be a source of stress, so it is perhaps not surprising that 36.5 percent of graduating seniors report that in the past year, they frequently felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.”

The desire for students to party and then still have the stamina to pull “all-nighters,” leads students to seek outside help. Sophomore psychology major Maria Hansen believes that, “a lot of people feel overwhelmed and they aren’t used to doing things on their own. They get overwhelmed very quickly and rather than take it one step at a time, they look for an easy way out.” Consequently, Hansen added, “people are getting more dependent on drugs rather than facing our issues internally. Pills are prescribed to fix a symptom when long-term psychiatric care would be better suited to address the underlying causes.”

The Psychiatric Times noted that this epidemic of mental illness “has overwhelmed the understaffed student health services around the country.” Student Health Services on campuses are not prepared to handle long-term psychiatric illnesses that the current diagnostic trend implies.

This reliance on medication and short-term resolution for complex underlying psychiatric issues and the over diagnoses of mental illnesses of students that are merely overwhelmed with college life will ultimately prove a dangerous path. Graduates will face a new set of burdens without the skills to resolve these issues. This may lead to a dangerous cycle of self-medicating as a temporary fix to either a serious psychological problem or a transitory problem that could be navigated independently when provided the necessary skills.