February 2, 2003
Dramatic Increases Seen in College Students' Mental Health Problems over Last 13 Years
University counseling center study shows more students seeking help for depression, thoughts of suicide and sexual assault
WASHINGTON — College students frequently have more complex problems today than they did over a decade ago, including both the typical or expected college student problems -- difficulties in relationships and developmental issues -- as well as the more severe problems, such as depression, sexual assault and thoughts of suicide. That is the finding of a study involving 13,257 students seeking help at a large Midwestern university counseling center over a 13-year period. Some of these increases were dramatic. The number of students seen each year with depression doubled, while the number of suicidal students tripled and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled.
The findings are reported on in the February issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psychologist Sherry A. Benton, Ph.D. and colleagues at Kansas State University examined trends in counseling center clients' problems from the perspective of the therapist at the time of therapy termination from 1988-1989 through 2000-2001. Results indicate that in 14 of the 19 problem areas studied, counseling center clinicians reported increases in the percentages of individuals having difficulties. Up until 1994, relationship problems were the most frequently reported client problem, according to the study. But since that time, stress and anxiety problems were reported more frequently than relationship problems, with dramatic increases seen in the number of students seeking help for depression, suicidal thoughts and sexual assault.
The patterns of change in the students' problems over the 13-year period were complex, according to the study. Three time periods were analyzed: academic years 1988-1992, 1992-1996, and 1996-2001 (the study period ended prior to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks). Six problems areas showed steep increases from the first time period to the second and then appeared to stabilize from the second to the third time period. Problems following this pattern included relationship problems, stress/anxiety, family issues, physical problems, personality disorders, suicidal thought and sexual assault. Other problem areas showed a steady increase in all three time periods, including depression, grief, and academic and developmental problems.
Some other problems, including those related to educational and vocational choice issues declined during the middle time period and increased in the more recent time period. Some serious problems, however, showed no significant change over the 13 years of the study, including those seeking help for substance abuse, eating disorders, legal problems and chronic mental illness.
Similar studies need to be conducted at other university counseling centers, say the authors, to verify what they believe may be a national trend. "If these observed patterns of change prove to be consistent with those at other counseling centers, then it is evident that therapists in counseling centers are seeing students with more critical needs than a decade ago." This comes at a time when students are finding fewer options for counseling and mental health care in the community, leaving the role of providing care primarily in the hands of university counseling center staff, according to the researchers.
Article: "Changes in Counseling Center Client Problems Across 13 Years," Sherry A. Benton, Ph.D., John M. Robertson, Ph.D., Wen-Chih Tseng, M.Ed., Fred B. Newton, Ph.D., and Stephen L. Benton, Ph.D., Kansas State University; Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 34, No. 1.
Reporters: Study authors Sherry Benton, Ph.D., and Fred Newton, Ph.D., are available for media interviews. Both can be reached at (785) 532-6927 or by e-mail: Dr. Benton or Dr. Newton.
The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.