A Decade Ago, 19% of Students Sought Treatment for Mental Health Problems. Now 34% Do

"Increasing prevalence of mental health problems and decreasing stigma help to explain this trend."


Mental health
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Reliance on campus mental health services increased dramatically over the past 10 years. In 2007, just 19 percent of students sought treatment for mental health problems; a decade later, that figure has increased to 34 percent.

The rate of students receiving treatment for lifetime diagnoses also jumped, from 22 percent to 36 percent, according to a new study by the American Psychiatric Association.

The study is impressively large: The authors surveyed 155,000 students at nearly 200 colleges.

"This study provides the most comprehensive evidence to date regarding upward trends in mental health service utilization on U.S. campuses over the past 10 years," wrote the study's authors. "Increasing prevalence of mental health problems and decreasing stigma help to explain this trend."

The fact that more students are seeking treatment does not necessarily mean things are getting worse. More people talking openly about their mental health could mean more people are leading better lives. It also doesn't have to mean more people need treatment now than than did a decade ago. As I've frequently observed regarding hate crime statistics, more comprehensive reporting should not be confused with an increase in the underlying thing being counted.

Of course, it could also be the case that young people really are more stressed out, anxious, and depressed than they used to be. Depression and suicide rates are on the rise, generally speaking, and not just for young people. Student loan debt is significantly larger than it was a decade ago, and thus the stakes for doing well in college are higher. Getting a degree is no longer an automatic ticket to a well-paying job, campuses are political and ideological powder kegs, social media has all of us on display all the time. These are all good reasons for students to be stressed.

My sense is that mental health issues have become dramatically destigmatized on college campuses. I have even seen campus personnel list their traumas and triggers in their online biographies (underneath their preferred pronouns). That's broadly a good thing, because many people need help, and will seek if they feel it's normal to both have problems and get help for them.

But colleges might also be inadvertently encouraging students to view their more mundane struggles or frustrations as symptomatic of underlying mental health issues. I'm thinking of all the student-activists who claim to be suffering from PTSD, possibly because it makes them seem more dedicated to their cause. Recall that trigger warnings could actually make some people more anxious and less resilient to trauma. I think it's reasonable to be concerned that 1) young people are very stressed out, often legitimately, and 2) campuses occasionally fail to emotionally equip them to handle life beyond college. Both things can be true.