Sara Oswalt, from the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the lead author of the new study, which was published in the Journal of American College Health.
According to estimates that the scientists cite, around 26 percent of people aged 18 and above in the United States live with a mental health condition in any given year.
Moreover, it is believed that half of all serious adult psychiatric conditions — such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorder — start as early as the age of 14. Around three-quarters of serious mental health issues start by the age of 25.
How has the prevalence of mental health issues among young people evolved over time? Does the fact that mental health problems are discussed more openly lead to an increase in diagnosis?
New research aimed to shed some light on these questions by examining the data on almost half a million U.S. undergraduate students between the years 2009 and 2015.
Trends in 12 mental health conditions
Oswalt and her colleagues studied the trends in diagnosis and treatment for a dozen mental health conditions: “anorexia, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, bulimia, depression, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks, phobia, schizophrenia, and substance abuse/addiction.”
The researchers applied statistical tools to a large dataset obtained from the American College Health Association, looking at the use of mental health services available on campus and the willingness to use them in the future.
Overall, the study found the greatest increases in diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Specifically, treatments and diagnoses for anxiety rose by 5.6 percent between 2009 and 2015, those for depression by 3.2 percent, and those for panic attacks by 2.8 percent.
Students are also more willing to seek help using the on-campus facilities. By the end of the study period, almost one-fifth of students said that they used their university’s mental health facilities, which represented an increase of over 4 percent from 2009.
Additionally, almost three-quarters of respondents said they would use the services in the future, which represents an increase of over 6 percent.
Universities should examine their culture
Oswalt comments on the potential mechanisms behind the new findings, saying that they might be a combination of increasingly poor mental health, an increased awareness of mental health services, and the reduced stigma surrounding mental health problems.
As for what may drive the deterioration of mental health in the first place, the author says, “We don’t know that the college environment is causing or even contributing to the increase in these conditions, but campuses are going to have to address it.”
“Higher education institutions want students to be successful in college, but if mental health issues aren’t adequately addressed, it will make student success more difficult to achieve,” she continues. “Universities should first examine the overall culture surrounding mental health on their campus.”
“If the overall culture is not one that promotes health, that will need to be considered before step two, which is providing support for prevention in a variety of areas. This may include sleep instruction, stress reduction, and exercise. Step three needs to be adequately staffing counseling and health centers so those in need of services can be seen.”
“If institutions don’t have counseling services, then partnering or identifying community resources is critical to supporting their students,” she adds.
She concludes, “Each institution will need to develop strategies that work for their culture and location, and solution-focused conversations need to happen with the highest levels of administration to adequately implement and support these strategies.”